The Dreidel

Two renowned artists appeared in our kitchen. My love had met them down in the center of this old colonial city in the middle of Mexico. She is not afraid of celebrity status, in the art world or any other world. She told them she had not expected to see them still in town. They said they were between engagements, and our small city was charming. They mentioned that the practice room they had been using was locked. My love said they could practice at our house, and they—deciding to trust her—followed her the 203 steps up through the allies to our barrio.

The first thing I knew about it was an astounding riff on our grand piano. Because of my love’s enthusiastic report on their concert performance with our Symphony, I had looked them up, as the good cultural voyeur that I am. She is a beauty, he is just as much a genius as she is, both of them astonishingly talented. And then they were standing in front of me, in our kitchen. That’s the moment when you pretend you don’t recognize and know anything about the famous people who perform all over the world with the finest orchestras. You’re disowning all knowledge, and this cost some energy, not to behave like a star-struck fool.

My love prepared food and drink. The husband said he would practice for a half an hour first, before eating and drinking. I did manage to show him the view from the roof first, looking down on the old city, almost as if flying over it. He seemed mildly interested, even less so in who I was. That was okay; after all, he had come in off the street with his family to practice, not to get to know me.

He was soon back at the piano. His wife attended to their child, a handsome boy of about three. She played with him, conversed with him and seemed to enter his world completely. He had found a dreidel (Yiddish dredl, from German drehen, to turn) among the toys my love keeps in shelves at a three-year old’s eye level.

A dreidel is a simple top made from two pieces of wood. The point is rounded, but the sides are flat. A short piece of dowel, attached above, serves as the spinner. There are four painted Hebrew letters, one on each of the four sides: Nun, Gimel, Hei, and Shin—which form the acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, “a great miracle has happened there.” I suppose the sentence referred to what has happened in Israel. Palestinians might not have the same sentiment, but that is not the responsibility of this three-year old.

His mother spun the dreidel. When it stopped and fell on its side, it showed a painted letter. “Nun!” she exclaimed, as if astounded by what had been revealed. Then he spun it. “Shin!” she cried—at what he had accomplished. He spun again, and the little game continued.

On the adult level, the letters also serve as a mnemonic device for remembering the rules of a gambling game. There is a kitty in the middle (raisins, candy, coins, anything), the players spin the dreidel, Nun stands for Nothing (you get nothing), Hei stands for Half (you take half of the kitty), Gimel means All (you take it all) and Shin means you have to put money into the kitty, or whatever you’re betting with. All of which also did not concern this three-year old.

We were off to a Thanksgiving potluck, hosted by the first bassoon player from the Symphony. My love was giving instructions on how our guests should feed themselves and how to leave the house, locked, when they left—not a simple matter. And very important, since we live in a conflicted zone ourselves.

The boy’s mother—a beauty and goddess on stage—was down to earth and as uncomplicated as her professional performing was complicated. They memorize everything, and so it was not hard to absorb and carry out my love’s simple instructions—which they rehearsed, just to be sure everything went all right.

In the meantime, the boy had moved to a spot in the last of the afternoon sun. He sat on the tile floor with his legs splayed out and back—frog pose. In front, he spun the dreidel. Over and over. Watching for the letter that came up. I do not know whether he said the letters to himself, though I’m sure he knew them by now. The dreidel fascinated him. There were all kinds of other toys he could have drifted to, but he stayed with the dreidel—something so simple.

Except that it was not so simple. It meant something to him. I do not know what, but he was his parents’ son, and three years old or not, something held him fixed. If I had asked about it, I think my question would not have aroused much interest among the adults. I will never know, because I didn’t ask. It is possible he had some other previous knowledge that he joined with the toy. I remember thinking it had to do with the genius in his parents and that he was simply applying a three-year old genius of his own. It is also possible he had seen his cousins playing the game during Hanukkah, betting chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, for example. But it could have been something all together different, like the magic of chance bringing up the letter—the letters his mother had found significant.

I told his mother I wanted the boy to have the dreidel. She protested, as if I were giving away something that was precious. I insisted. It was small, he could carrying with him and play with it whenever he wanted. I said it meant far more to her son than to any child that had so far come through our kitchen.

As we left, I remember joking with my love that we had just turned our house over to complete strangers and that, while famous and talented, wouldn’t it be a joke on us, if they turned out to be some kind of kleptomaniacs and we would return to find an empty house.

That did not occur. She left a sweet note thanking us for everything and saying they would leave a CD for us at the front desk of the hotel where they were staying. My love, who is kind, generous and outgoing, has continued to correspond with them. The piano is here for them when they return in two years, should they need it. I suppose I’ll have to look for another dreidel, in case the boy, in the meantime, has lost his. I did look through the kitchen toys just to see if for some reason his mother had not taken it along, but it was gone—and hopefully, in this very moment, is in the little fellow’s pocket for when he needs it.

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