Columns - 2004

    Celebrity Dreidel

    By Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    A new craze has seized the nation. It's all over television, it's the talk of the town. The straight truth is that it's so hot it's got people flush. Every event for this phenomenon plays to a full house.

    It involves more gambling than interstate driving in the first rush hour after the switch back to standard time.

    Players are raking it in like never before, and now in front of a national audience. I'm talking, of course, about playing dreidel.

    People can't get enough of this simple, timeless game. Much like in the game's legendary roots, people today will sneak a game in when they're not allowed. Instead of hiding in caves or in the woods, they hide in cubicles or in the woods. And now, thanks to a special arrangement, it can be seen everywhere.

    For better or worse, and there's been both, American television has been importing (Yiddish for "stealing") foreign programs in the hopes of creating new hits without the necessity of any originality or creativity whatsoever. Much like the forefathers of this great nation, many of them (both good and bad) have come from Britain.

    You're probably familiar with the Bravo network. Its new sister network, Brava, has a special development arrangement with a new network in Israel, Brava Nagila. Just as Hebrew is read right to left, this fledgling Israeli network went in the opposite direction of the norm.

    Brava Nagila stole an idea from American television and created a show in which celebrities would get together and gamble while a national audience watched. The gimmick is that they changed the game itself to dreidel.

    Thus began a cultural epidemic, the likes of which have not been seen since my last throat culture.

    To better acquaint you with this new show, I'll first present you with the rules.

    Of course, the dreidel is a standard top with four sides. Each side has its own letter, again traditional. Each letter stands for a word, which I'm not going to tell you about. This is not religious school. You know, that place that you should now regret not having stayed awake at more often. (This applies to some teachers as well as students.)

    But I will remind you of the monetary value for each letter when the dreidel lands on them. I will also provide you the common mnemonics for each letter, to help you remember.

    (Not for nothing, but have you ever noticed that when a dreidel "lands on" a side, it actually technically lands on the opposite side? The side that it "lands on" for the purpose of the game is actually facing up? And they say Aramaic is a weird language...)

    Anyway, here's the letters, their mnemonics, the second (and now third) correct spellings in this article of "mnemonics," and the impact each letter has on the game:

    Nun -- "nothing." You don't put anything in the pot, and you don't get anything out.

    Gimmel -- "gimme." You get the entire pot. But you can use it only in California, and only for medicinal purposes.

    Hay -- "half." You get half of the pot.

    Shin -- "sh*t." You have to put two of whatever you're playing for into the pot.

    Pay -- "pay." In Israel, this letter appears instead of the shin. (Again, this isn't religious school so I won't remind you of why. Ask your rabbi.) Same impact on the game, though. Like the animals into Noah's Ark, you lose your money two by two.

    For the show Celebrity Dreidel to become the cultural phenomenon that it is, a few seeds were planted to nudge it along.

    The Aerosmith rock cover of "I Had a Little Dreidel" which is the show's theme song has been a top ten hit for weeks on international pop charts.

    After introducing the show and that evening's celebrity players, and briefly recapping the rules, the host (appropriately enough to the theme song, none other than Clay Aiken) uses the now famous tagline, "it's dry, it's ready, let's play!"

    Of course, lots of little rules had to be agreed to for competitive dreidel play.

    Naturally, every player gets a single spin, with turns going around the circle in a clockwise manner. (Of course, on Israeli television this is in reverse because Hebrew is read right to left.)

    The exceedingly popular upside down spinning technique, in which the dreidel itself is spun upside down (but the spinner is always right-side up), is not legal on Celebrity Dreidel.

    If the dreidel spins off the table, the turn is lost. If the dreidel hits anything on the table, including anyone's money or the pot itself, a respin is allowed. Except on Tuesdays. Or if another player intentionally left their money in a spot where it would cause the dreidel to land on Shin.

    As the game progresses, there are various nicknames for the players based on their success to that point. Tune in and you'll find out who's doing well if they're Top Heavy, Top Gun, or Topsy Turvy.

    Now it might seem that there's no room for strategy in a game of chance like this, involving nothing but a spinning top and fixed wages. But that's just craps.

    After the inaugural episode of Celebrity Dreidel, the live studio audience left the taping very enthusiastic. Having seen tens of thousands of dollars change hands with a single spin, several were quoted as saying, "a great miracle happened there."

    Doug Brook is a topsy turvy technical publications program manager in Silicon Valley who is tentatively scheduled to appear on an upcoming episode of Celebrity Dreidel. He'll be on as soon as they can sign Harrison Ford, Celine Dion, and the president of the Anti-Manilow Fan Club (AMFC) for the same episode. For more information, past columns, other writing, and other current events, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.