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Miracles Do Happen, Both 'Here' and 'There'

December 22, 2005 By:
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield
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Kids have played with dreidels on Chanukah for centuries. But these days, dreidels are not just for children. In fact, playing dreidel on Chanukah has become so popular that we now have public events that incorporate them, including the largest number of tops being spun, the largest group of people doing the spinning, etc.

One might imagine that these are simply outreach gimmicks. Or it may be that playing dreidel is much more than just a simple game. It may be that games for children are much more meaningful and complex than we often think.

In Israel, the four sides of the dreidel are marked with the Hebrew letters nun, hey, gimel and peh - initials for the Hebrew words that translate as "a great miracle happened here." In the Diaspora, the first three sides bear the same letters, while the fourth side bears a shin. These dreidels celebrate that "a great miracle happened there."

Perhaps we should be spinning both kinds of dreidels wherever we are. After all, each person's here is someone else's there. Not to mention that leaders from across the ideological and geographical spectrum keep telling us that the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora must be renegotiated in the 21st century.

On the American side, we still use Israel to evoke the specter of Jewish vulnerability on the one hand and as a kind of pride generating inoculation center against intermarriage on the other. On the Israeli side, America is still the rich uncle or the place one goes to make money when the Zionist dream has died.

None of these things is actually bad. The powerful, successful, democratic State of Israel still faces real threats to her security. And for many young people, there is no better way to connect to their Jewishness than by spending time there.

As the richest Jewish community to have ever inhabited the earth, American Jews should be thinking of creative ways to use their wealth to contribute to the development of a place that we love. America has also been a land of unprecedented opportunity for Jews from around the world for generations. That it should be so for Jews from Israel should make us proud as Americans.

But where is the new thinking that we need about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora - between the kind of identity and meaning that flows from one experience, and the kind that flows from the other?

Where is the serious renegotiation that defines this much talked about but little practiced new relationship? Perhaps it lies in our willingness to spin both kinds of dreidels wherever we are in the world physically. Perhaps it lies in recognizing that we all need the insights found on both kinds of dreidels. We all need the wisdom that flows from the miraculous experience of modern Israel; we all need the wisdom that flows from the miraculous experience of Jewish life in contemporary North America.

Wherever we are in the world, we must all learn the lesson of Israel - the immediacy of wonderful, even sacred things happening all around us. Such things are as likely to be occurring in boardrooms, bedrooms and bake shops as they are in schoolrooms and synagogues - something every Israeli already knows, however so-called religious or secular one may be.

These are the gifts of dreidels from Israel, gifts that must be integrated actively into Diaspora Jewish life.

Wherever we are in the world, we must also integrate the wisdom of dreidels in America - the possibility of miraculous events far from where we are, not only physically, but also spiritually and ideologically. That is what it means to grow past too easy labels and nurture the diversity that is one of America's greatest strengths.

These are the gifts of Diaspora dreidels, which must find their way into all Jewish life.

In this renegotiation, neither side exploits the other for its own narrow purposes. Instead, each side integrates the gifts of the other's experience and creates something new - a 21st-century Jewish people that is healthier than either the zealous Zionists or the deeply committed Diasporists can possibly imagine.

In this game, neither side has to lose for the other side to win. That's a game which each of us should play.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the vice president of CLAL - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

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