Berger’s Burg: Maybe ‘a great miracle’ can happen again

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Dreidel dreidel, dreidel

I made it out of clay.

And, when it's dry and ready,

Oh, dreidel, I will play.

- A traditional Hanukkah song

At sunset Thursday, Dec. 21, Jews around the world will light the first of the eight candles of Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights.

This festive occasion - which is actually one of the few post-Biblical holidays on the Jewish calendar - honors an event that occurred more than 2,000 years ago.

The holiday celebrates the Jews' defeat of their Syrian rulers by the Maccabees, a ragtag army of Jewish patriots. King Antiochus, who ruled Syria from 175 B.C. through 164 B.C., forbade Jews to practice their religion (certainly not the first or last time Jews in most parts of the world were told this).

His edict was enforced by the Syrian army. Jewish temples were destroyed and the scrolls of the Torah, the sacred source of Hebrew Law, were burned.

The Jews fought to free themselves from this yoke of religious oppression. They fought with courage, they fought with fervor, and, they fought with guile. They were helped considerably by Judith, a Jewish heroine who used her feminine wiles to the fullest. She enticed an enemy general to eat what today we would call a high-fat, high-cholesterol dairy meal before a pending Jewish assault. This caused the bloated commander to feel drowsy. It left him and his army vulnerable to Jewish attack and ultimate defeat.

After the momentous victory, the Jews discovered that their supply of special oil to be used in the lamp of the reconstructed Temple, was only enough to keep the lamp burning for one day. But, incredibly, the flame burned steadily for eight days - time enough for a new supply of oil to be readied. Why can't my furnace be as efficient?

The dreidel, the four-sided top always associated with Hanukkah, has an interesting story of its own. It is said to have been invented during the uprising, as a diversionary tactic. As their Torahs were being destroyed, the Jews decided to gather in small groups to secretly discuss and study the Torah from memory. The dreidel was placed on the table, at the center of the study group, and when warned of approaching soldiers, the gathering would spin the top. When the soldiers arrived, all they would find were the Jews playing a simple game of spinning a top..

In following years, the dreidel was inscribed with four Hebrew letters, Nun, Gimel, Hay, and Shin, the first letters of the words: "Nes Gadol Hayah Shem" - "A great miracle happened there."

No Hanukkah celebration would be complete without children spinning the dreidel.

The game is played with chocolate coins, buttons, pennies, or whatever. This is symbolic of the ancient coins of Israel which were struck to commemorate the Jews' newfound freedom after their victory over the Syrian army.

Each player contributes the money - the "gelt" - to the pot and spins the dreidel in turn. The letters that come up also are the initials for Yiddish words which instruct the player as follows: Nun - the player does nothing; Gimel - the player takes all; Hay - the player takes half; and Shin - the player puts in.

Through the centuries, the dreidel has been made in many different ways. They were made from lead-poured molds, carved wood, tin, plastic, and even paper crafted on wooden dowels.

As the top spins, and the game is played and enjoyed, the most important thing for the children to remember is the message the dreidel conveys, "A great miracle happened there" - with the clear suggestion that miracles can happen again.

Coincidentally, I recently had a dream that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, P.L.O. leader Yasser Arafat, Syrian leader Hafez Assad, and other Arab leaders sat down to in my living room to discuss peace, on this Hanukkah. They had a difficult time agreeing.

Then I pulled out a dreidel. The four leaders immediately dismissed their aides, and began to play the dreidel game mano a mano. Sweat poured from their brows as the game progressed.

When the game was over, the smiling gentlemen quickly agreed to a permanent peace. And that permanent peace would ultimately envelope the entire Mid-East forever.

Then, on ail future Hanukkahs, the world's children would exclaim, "A great miracle happened there."

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