You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

“There” vs. “Here” — Message on a Dreydl

Zachary Gallant
December 25, 2017

by Zachary Gallant

TWO WEEKS BACK, I had a large group of friends over to my home in Germany to celebrate Khanike. I’m the only Jew in my village, but as the cofounder of a refugee integration NGO, I have a friends group that is incredibly diverse. On holidays and birthdays, I celebrate with German Christians, Iranians, Arabs and Kurds from Aleppo, Kurds from Turkey and German-born Turks, Afghans, and many others. We break fasts together, give one another’s children gifts, light candles together, and are made better by our interaction with one another’s culture and religion. I’m a guest lecturer on “Jewish Concepts of Peaceful Coexistence” for an M.A. program at a university in Berlin, so this is totally my jam.

The way I and most of the Jews I know grew up celebrating it, it is easy to forget that Khanike is no simple festival of lights. The real story of Khanike is one of religious persecution, of the conquering of the land of Judea by the Seleucid Empire, of the erecting of a statue of Zeus in the holy temple in Jerusalem and the looting of that temple. It is the story of the vicious battle for freedom fought by a small group of Jewish guerrilla warriors. But this battle was also a civil war, the Maccabees also killing Jews they felt had become un-Jewish by their assimilation into Greek life. Khanike commemorates the desecration of a holy site and its reconsecration, but we gloss over the more than 20 years of fighting and the huge death tolls. And in the end, it is not even a story of victory, but merely of delayed defeat. Less than a century after the Jewish reconquest and resanctifying of Jerusalem, the Second Temple was finally destroyed by the Romans and the Jews were enslaved, killed, or exiled for the next 2,000 years.

Khanike could easily have been just another commemoration of victimhood, or a call to arms for revenge, but we choose to shift the narrative to focus on the Light. This is what makes it one of my favorite holidays, despite being so minor in the Jewish religion: The parallels between our world today and that of 2,000 years ago are astonishing, but in a rare moment of optimism, Khanike gives us a moment to focus not on othering, hatred, oppression, and extremism, but on hope and miracles. This, too, is what I appreciate about the use of the phrase “next year in Jerusalem” to end the Passover service. It is not “today in Jerusalem” or even “tomorrow in Jerusalem”. It was not Zionist in nature (nor even biblical in nature, beginning to be used in the service only in the 13th century). It is symbolic of the striving, every year, to get closer to holiness and closer to our roots. Our holidays recall our struggles, recall our victimhood, but also focus on hope. This is what I wanted to share with my friends, many of whom had been through moments of the utmost hopelessness, their own Maccabean revolt and exile in our time.

At the center of the party was going to be the candle-lighting and the game of dreydl. The party was largely kid-oriented, and this seemed the best, friendliest way to introduce them all to Jewish culture, and to the core of the holiday. I’d planned to explain each Hebrew letter: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (giml), ה‎ (hey), ש‎ (shin), how they’re an acronym for “נסגדול היה שם‎”: Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “A Great Miracle Happened There.” There’s a very limited knowledge of Judaism among my community, mostly obsessed with the Holocaust and Israel, and this was my shot to share the previously-described beauty of the holiday, the central message of Khanike, the miracle of a victory over unbeatable forces, the miracle of the rebuilding of the temple, and most well-known, the miracle of one day’s worth of candle oil managing to burn for eight full days, the time necessary to prepare new holy oil.

Unfortunately, on the second night of Khanike, our family dreydl broke (I suppose that’s what you get when you make a toy out of clay). You might be surprised at how difficult it is to find a dreydl in rural Germany (though you probably wouldn’t be). I found a shop in Dresden, on the other side of the country, that could deliver me ten dreydls in time for our party. Awesome. They arrived right on time, shortly before the party started. I opened the package, and they looked quite lovely.

As I spun the dreydls around, I noticed something strange. Instead of the fourth letter on the dreidel being a ש‎ (shin), what appeared instead was the letter פ (pay), changing the acronym (I learned as I researched) to נס גדול היה פה, Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—“A Great Miracle Happened Here.” And I short-circuited.

I know, my response sounds ridiculous, right? That’s what my guests thought when I started explaining it to them. But this is no small semantic difference. The difference between Nes Gadol Hayah Sham – “A Great Miracle Happened There” — and Nes Gadol Hayah Poh—“A Great Miracle Happened Here” — is the difference between “Next year in Jerusalem” being declared at the end of Passover to urge us to live holier and better lives, and Donald Trump’s unilateral recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the state of Israel. “A Great Miracle Happened There” is an exhortation to remember and rejoice, beseeching us to have hope and to believe. That is the Jewishness of striving to improve the world and ensure a better future. “A Great Miracle Happened Here” is nationalism, pure and simple. It is a declaration of Mission Accomplished and a call to defend what is by “divine right” ours. Change a single letter, and you change the whole meaning of the holiday.

UNFORTUNATELY, the “Here” dreydl constitutes the wide majority of Israeli dreydls. Apparently, only the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods in Jerusalem sell the “There” dreydl, largely because haredi Judaism rejects Zionism. This information was shocking to a lot of my Muslim and Christian friends, who had believed that those Jews with the funny hats and funny sideburns and long beards were the Zionist version of ISIS. The idea had never crossed their minds that the ultra-Orthodox would be anti-Zionist. Yet thanks to the haredi belief that Jews are biblically forbidden from ruling the Land of Israel before the arrival of the messiah, as well as their concern that secular nationalism is replacing Judaism, some of them do reject the Jewish state and, with it, the underlying message of the “Here” dreydl.

That’s a good example of the problem: Germany and most of Europe, and in fact most of the world, doesn’t understand that there is a difference between Jews and Israel. Any shop that I have found in Europe selling Jewish goods is selling goods from Israel, not from local Jewish populations or from America. Which means that, while I was happily spinning my “There” dreydl, completely ignorant of the existence of another kind, the “Here” dreydl was out there quietly conquering my culture.

This is not new for Zionism. Zionism has a history of quietly suppressing those parts of Judaism it finds incompatible with a streamlined Israeli identity. An interview with Mordechai Tzanin, the editor of Israel’s first Yiddish newspaper, from Arthur Neslen’s 2006 book Occupied Minds, shows how Israel made a conscious political decision to murder the Yiddish and Ladino languages of diaspora Jewry to make Hebrew a unifying force for the New Jew:

I was born in Poland in 1906. I came to Palestine because of the World War, so I was a refugee not a Zionist. In those days, refugees who spoke Yiddish were treated very badly. I took it as it was.

Newspapers were allowed in English and French, even German, but Yiddish was forbidden. I didn’t care, I ignored the rules. Between ’52 and ’66, I printed a daily Yiddish newspaper, Letste Nayes. It wasn’t easy. There were no real Yiddish writers here. It was even forbidden to speak Yiddish on the streets -- it was that bad. If you tried, officials would come up to you and say ‘Please don’t speak Yiddish.’ So people obeyed.

During the Tsenna [scarcity, 1951-55], newspapers were supposed to receive paper from the government but we didn’t. There was a war and it was hard to find paper so I had to buy it on the black market. You could get anything there because the Jew is a smart person, he knows how to handle. There was corruption in the Jewish Agency. They were thieves. So we used green paper, red paper -- a strange thing to have a daily news-sheet with red paper.

But many people bought it because we published the truth. There was a struggle between Zionists and Yiddish and we printed the debate. The Hebrew papers lied. We were printing 30,000 newspapers but many of our readers were immigrants who had no money. So one person would buy the paper and take it to the Mobarot [camps for Jews who were not yet resettled in Israel] and read it to people aloud. One issue could reach 50,000 people that way.

At that time it was forbidden to say how many Jews were living in the camps because they wanted to attract more Jews to Israel. Fifty thousand were in the Mobarot! But Zionist journalists wrote that there were only a few thousand. It was painful for me to see lies becoming currency. They didn’t tell their readers what happened to the Polish Jews or how many were killed in the Holocaust. They didn’t want to count?

My personal line was close to the Bund, but I was not in any party. It was more like a cultural thing. There was news but no line. Everybody spoke Yiddish. It’s a beautiful language, like Shakespeare is beautiful, Yiddish is beautiful. Yiddish reminded people of their homes because here, they were lonely. In Yiddish, the heart opens.. With all his strength, the ‘strong’ Jew is not strong… [If Yiddish dies], all the beauty of Judaism [dies with it]…

The “Here” dreydl is just more of the same arbitrary political manufacturing of a group linguistic identity around Hebrew, a magical biblical language but not a language of the people, at the expense of the identity that had grown organically for millennia around Yiddish and Ladino in the diaspora. Uglier still, though, is the appropriation by this state of the dreydl, a game that originated in Yiddish culture, with each Hebrew letter corresponding, in fact, to a Yiddish word: נ‎ (nun) corresponded to the Yiddish “nit” meaning “nothing”, ג‎ (giml) corresponding to the Yiddish “gantz” meaning “everything”, ה‎ (hey) corresponding to the Yiddish “halb” meaning “half”, and ש‎ (shin) corresponding to the Yiddish “shtel arayn” meaning “put in.” Here comes Zionism, murderer of Yiddish, further co-opting a children’s game that came from Yiddish culture to turn out a dangerously nationalistic message.

ZIONISTS WEREN’T always the majority in Jewish thought and culture. Back before the Holocaust, Bundists, Reform Jews, Orthodox Jews, Jewish Autonomists, khasidic Jews, and a large percentage of secular leftist Jews and self-espoused assimilationists all opposed Zionism. Most of these Jews were murdered in the Holocaust or fled to the USA, while, on the other hand, the Haavara agreement between the government of Nazi Germany and Zionist Jewish leaders allowed some German Jews to flee to Palestine for a price. Hanna Arendt cites in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem

a letter from a survivor of Theresienstadt [concentration camp], a German Jew, relates that all leading position in the Nazi-appointed Reichsvereinigung were held by Zionists (whereas the authentically Jewish Reichsvertretung had been composed of both Zionists and non-Zionist), because Zionists, according to the Nazis, were “the ‘decent’ Jews since they too thought in ‘national’ terms.

This is not to blame the victim: As a former board member of the American Jewish Congress, I could comprehend, living in 1948, after the millions of Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust and hundreds of thousands more made stateless refugees, the allure of Zionism to save my people, and I most certainly would have fled under the terms of Haavara if the other choice was death. However, Zionism has not been a Jewish solution.

The State of Israel has not just created over five million Palestinian refugees (thereby compounding the global refugee crisis), it also created an excuse for Jew-hatred based on an oppressive occupying state calls that itself Jewish. Jews will recall the hundreds of thousands of Arab Jews who were cast out of their long-standing homes by the opportunistic leaders of the Arab lands, now that there was a Jewish state to receive them. But that Jewish state was a European Jewish state, with historical-revisionist Ashkenazi dominance and repression of other Jewish cultures, including the Kurdish Jews or the Ethiopian Jews, in addition to the murder of organic Jewish languages. As a Jew looking back seventy years later, it’s hard to support the Zionist project and infuriating to watch said project undermine what it means to be a Jew.

AT MY KHANIKE party were supporters of Kurdish independence from Iran, Syria and Turkey. Among my good friends are activists for ethnic statehood in breakaway regions of the Balkans and in Sri Lanka and all throughout the European Union, from Scotland to South Tyrol. For these friends, I have a new Khanike message. My Jewishness is something I treasure, rich with beautiful tradition and a moral responsibility based on a history of being refugees and the victims of hate and repression. My Jewishness is bound up in the traditions of Khanike and the other holidays with which I was raised, of hope and a commitment to stand with the oppressed and against the oppressor always, and I carry it in my heart as much as in my mind. Kurdish representative in the Turkish parliament Osman Baydemir paid a heavy price for his beautiful recent display of rebellion, showing the world that he carries his Kurdishness as I carry my Jewishness. And I have many other freedom-fighting friends who make similarly heartfelt expressions. But Baydemir’s display could easily end up meaningless in a new Kurdish state in which many Kurdish statists would push to suppress longstanding Kurdish diaspora languages and cultures in order to streamline their own idealized Kurdish identity, as in Israel and, really, any state.

I have a lot of sympathy for movements for self-determination. I’ve documented and been a part of a few myself in places like the Balkans. But the question independence activists should ask themselves is: what will your state, if founded today, look like in seventy years? What will the state narrative be? In the case of Kurdistan (which I’ll use because of intense familiarity with the situation), will Iraqi Kurdistan use their existing state structure to become the dominant Kurdish culture, playing on global sympathies for Halabja and Hussein and American betrayal? Or will the Rojava build a defensive border against the rest of Syria and use their victimhood throughout the Syrian Civil War and before to dominate the sympathies of the world? Will Iran and Turkey use Kurdish independence in either of these small portions of greater Kurdistan as an excuse to ethnically cleanse themselves of the Kurds now that there’s a Kurdish state to receive them, and will those other Kurds become second-class citizens within their new land without claims to their own historical tragedy? Will certain dialects of Kurdish be crushed? And will the Kurdish history of welcoming other cultures and coexisting largely peacefully with one’s cohabitants remain, or will the recent history of conflict result in anti-Arabism as a response to generations of Arab repression? Will the same thing happen in Vojvodina, or in Crimea?

Pure ethnic sovereignty is dangerous, not just physically but to a people’s soul. The fact that so many both within and without the Jewish community do not understand the separation between being Jewish and being Israeli or being Zionist is evidence of this danger. The subtle yet radical difference between the hopeful message of “A Great Miracle Happened There” and the nationalistic message of “A Great Miracle Happened Here” in a simple Khanhike child’s game is the best evidence there could be. Imagine the homeland that is in your heart. Imagine your favorite folk dance, your favorite folk song, your favorite game of your people, and now imagine some politician co-opts it to isolate and wipe out your vision of your people and your identity. It’s a hard thing to imagine, it is a wildly lonely feeling, but it is the inevitable endpoint of ethnic nationalism, and the founders of any modern ethnic state must be mindful of this.

Zachary Gallant directs a refugee integration NGO in Germany and is a lecturer throughout Germany on Jewish refugee history and on Jewish concepts of peaceful coexistence. A former board member of the American Jewish Congress (Maryland Chapter), he is the author of War: A Children’s Book and The Forgotten War Crimes: State Sovereignty, Ethnic Cleansing, and the Autonomist Revolution.