December 24, 1997

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Dreidel maven promotes religious toy as art

Rabbi says significance of Hannukah tops long overlooked


The Associated Press

GREENSBURG, Pa. (AP) -- Rabbi Sara Rae Perman spun her left hand in the air as she told the stories behind her collection of 250 dreidels -- the toys that originated in gambling and are used during Hanukkah.

Gliding behind a conference table covered with the spinning tops of various designs ranging from the sublime to the silly, Perman said she wants to show the Jewish community that dreidels are more than just toys.

"They aren't ritual items so people don't take them seriously as an art form," she said, her hand stopping on an apple-sized brass dreidel. "For instance, this one turns into a traveling Hanukkah menorah. It's very old and very valuable."

She said the dreidel craze is catching on. Members of her Monroeville congregation inspired by her passion have begun collecting Judaica.

Dreidel lovers in Cincinnati even publish a newsletter to help other collectors identify the heritage of their items.

But Kitty Ruttenberg, the founder of an organization that indexes Jewish art says dreidels have a long way to go before reaching the status of menorahs and other religious items in Jewish culture.

Ruttenberg, 83, founded the Pittsburgh Index of Judaica and Jewish Art six years ago. "I'm not sure you can put [dreidels] so completely in the category of art," she said. "Most are merely toys, but they are important and have a message that reminds of the miracle [of Hannukah]."

A small blue and pink dreidel with Vladimir Lenin's face painted on one side sat nearby. Other famous communists decorate the remaining three sides.

"You see," she said. "Different people have different ways of expressing themselves. It was that artist's idea of free speech."

Perman said her most valuable dreidel was handmade in Israel out of carved Roman glass and sterling silver. "I was so afraid it would break that I held it in my hands the whole way back from Israel," she said. "That one stays at home."

She said that dreidel and the one that converts into a portable menorah are valued at around $2,500 each.

The 46-year-old collector points out the less-than-artistic items in her collection, smiling and twirling her tangled dreidel necklaces between her fingers.

"Look at me," she said. "I'm even dripping with dreidels."

A chocolate dreidel rests in a box not far from a dreidel cookie jar. A fat brass dreidel shaped like a hockey-puck tilts over scores of miniature candy-colored tops and one decorated with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck.

Perman points out salt-and-pepper shakers, a frisbee and soap -- all in the shape of the traditional Hanukkah children's toy.

< The dreidel began as a German gambling game in the middle ages, but over the centuries has evolved into a child's game played during the burning of candles over the 8-day Hanukkah holiday which began Tuesday.

Hanukkah celebrates Jewish victory over Syria in 163 B.C. The burning of candles during the holiday represents the single day's supply of oil that lasted eight days after the Syrian defeat while the Jews rededicated the Jerusalem temple.

One word of the phrase "[A] great miracle happened there" is written in Hebrew on each side of a dreidel to commemorate the event.

Israeli dreidels are slightly different. Their inscription reads: "[A] great miracle happened here."

Depending on which word the top lands on, the spinner either winds the ante, loses half the winnings, loses everything or must ante up.

"My 3-year-old son and I play with raisins," Perman said.

From the cheapest toy to the most intricately designed dreidels in her collection, she said they all have one thing in common.

"These are just fun," she said. "They make people happy."