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Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

A man without faith finds answers in a game
I’ve never really been sure what I am, religion-wise at least. My mother called herself an Anglican, but that did not mean too much to me, since my father’s stance was well beyond run of the mill Atheism – he did not have a love-hate relation with the idea of God – he simply hated the mention of that word. It was not enough to deny His or Her existence. It was necessary to live our lives as if that word did not exist. I’m convinced that my father wasted a good 20% of the world’s oil reserves in his driving methods, taking the most circuitous route to avoid driving past any churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.

Consequently, I only knew of my mother’s faith through secretive discussions we would have while my father was away at work. Once he came through the door, however, any immortal soul I might have had within me high-tailed it out of the house, for fear my father would detect something faintly religious within me, leading to my possible subjection to a beating. My father never actually hit me, but the thought that he might try it one day, in response to the slightest hint of faith, was an ever-present fear.

Things changed in university. I moved from my parents’ home for the first time at age 18, and found myself a six hour drive from them, far enough that if I glanced the wrong way and accidentally saw a religious symbol, I was somewhat confident that I was safe from my father’s wrath. Being 18, and naturally curious about the world, I took it upon myself to do some exploration. Having grown up in a relative vacuum, I had no preferences, and Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Sikhism, and the lot, they were all pretty much the same to me. It was if I had passed through puberty without once masturbating, and now liberated by age and opportunity, I was trying to decide if I should use my right or my left hand.

Thankfully, I knew something about sex, even if I was a virgin regarding the world beyond and matters of faith. I had discovered masturbation at 14, and I had been treated to a series of girlfriends throughout high school who taught me the basics. Maybe I could not operate a stick-shift, I thought, but I was fine with automatic transmission. I was not impatient – there would be plenty of time for other women to teach me the finer points of driving, so to speak.

My first semester at university was an education for me beyond the classroom. The courses I took were all liberal arts, with the exception of one science (if one can consider psychology a science, and not one of the black arts), and I met a wide range of students, equally wide-eyed and from a multitude of backgrounds. I went to all the required social events and found myself dazzled by an array of young and beautiful women of all shapes, sizes and colors.

Building on my curiosity regarding religious faith, I tried to sample a wide variety. There was Barbara, my first date at university, who took me to a meeting of the Young Catholics on Campus for a pot-luck dinner. It was literally the first time I had ever been among people who said grace before eating, but besides that, they all seemed just like my own family. After two dates I discovered that Catholics are just like atheists, except they have someone, or something, at whom to direct their anger besides simple random chance.

A few weeks later, I met Satinder, and without wanting to minimize the beauty to be found in one faith or another, she was simply a Catholic who just happened to be a Sikh. Same prayer book but a different language, as far as I was concerned. Not to be dismissive, but I was not sure what the fuss was all about. I grew up without God and ritual in my life, and yet she and I seemed to be from the same species and we could speak the same language.

A journey through a southern Baptist, a fellow Anglican (I lied and adopted my mother’s faith when I spoke to Jackie, rather than disclose my father’s pervasive non-belief), and I even sampled a second Catholic, going out on three dates with Maureen, with whom I had flirted at that pot-luck dinner with Barbara – a long story that even I prefer not to hear again.

My only conclusion toward the end of my first semester was that religion was more about the resulting flavor and individual taste or preference, than it was about the basic ingredients. I truly could not see the difference between the different faiths, and I seemed to have grown up with some moral backbone without God along for the ride. Faith seemed irrelevant to my happiness.

During the final exam before the semester ended, I sat behind one young woman whom I had noticed a few times in my Elizabethan Poetry class. Three hours of spilling whatever little I had learned onto some blank pages, that was the easy part of the exam. Keeping my eyes off of the flowing red hair in front of me was another story. She wore it long, perfectly straight, to about mid-way down her back, and she also wore bangs in front. Her complexion was fair, almost pale to be more accurate, and her figure was quite curvy. If I had to guess, given her coloring I would have said she was of Irish descent, but perhaps I can attribute that to the stereotypes I learned and that grow from a sheltered background in a small town.

At the end of the exam, I was conflicted about whether or not to try to start up a conversation with her. Not that I felt out of my league with her, but I was simply unsure if I found her attractive, or if her red hair and complexion were simply some fetishistic obsession on my part. She never gave me the chance to finish my internal debate, as she turned around in her chair and introduced herself.

“I’ve seen you in the class and kept meaning to say hello. I’m Shoshana. And you are…?”

“Alex. Nice to meet you, Shoshana.”

“I know this is probably being too forward, especially since all we’ve done is exchanged names, but I’m going to a party tonight and was wondering if you wanted to come too. It would give us a chance to exchange more than names, and we could talk about the class a bit.”

A party. That same night. Too forward? A thousand questions tumbled through the exhausted remains of my grey matter, still focused on the exam, including the key question of why. Why had she kept meaning to say hello? Why had she waited until the end of semester? Why me?

I tried not to seem too obvious, as I looked at her curves, and as I forced myself to focus on her face (noticing her hazel eyes for the first time), I simply answered, “Sure.” If there was any attraction on her part, it was certainly not due to my being overly wordy or articulate.

“Great,” she responded. “Let’s meet at about 7:00 tonight at the Osler Building, front doors, and we can walk together. Don’t eat – they’ll have tons of food there.”

“Sounds like a plan. Take down my cell number in case…”

She cut me off. “No. Not ‘in case’ – not necessary. We’ll meet at 7:00 and that’s all.”

And then she was off. Her hair bounced behind her as she walked off, leaving me to wonder while smiling, with the “why” still unanswered. Hopefully, I thought, the answer was only a few hours away.

I went back to my apartment, showered, dressed and then sat in front of the television set, with it turned off, counting the hours and then the minutes before leaving. Why? That I hoped to find out soon. Who? Probably Irish. Probably Catholic. Get ready to say grace again. Funny how I had not considered her faith earlier. But by that point in my semester, in my education, I didn’t really care so much. I toyed with the idea of confessing my lack of belief, but wondered how to casually slip that into conversation. “Oh, I’d love another mini quiche, thank you so much, and by the way, I don’t believe in God.” That sounded slightly (but not much) better than waiting until, or if, we ever were intimate, and chastising her for yelling out “Oh God!” as she reached her climax, telling her that to me that was akin to faking an orgasm.

It was already dark as we met, 7:00 in winter feeling and looking more like 10:00, and we made small talk as we walked away from our meeting place, down the centre avenue cutting through the campus, and then turning left down one of the side streets. We arrived at an old Victorian mansion, as many of the buildings surrounding the campus were, that had been renovated and turned into one of many student-oriented services. The sign in front of the house read “Chabad” and I had learned enough in my brief voyage through the world of faith that Shoshana was likely Jewish, and that this was an Orthodox group, the Lubavitch branch in Judaism, and this was likely her primary contact with her faith while living away from her home.

“Happy Chanukah,” she said, as she took me by the hand and led me inside the brightly lit house, which was decorated in shades of blue, gold and silver with banners in English and what I assumed was Hebrew.

“We’re just in time to light the Chanukkiah,” she added, pointing to what I had thought was called a Menorah, based on my reading, being a multi-branched candelabra.

The house smelt of food from the moment we entered. Fried onions permeated the atmosphere, and I discovered the source – fried potato pancakes, “potato latkes” she called them – being cooked in the kitchen. It reminded me of the Catholic pot-luck dinner, people wandering in and out of the kitchen, bringing food, taking food, filling their plates, finding someplace to sit and talk or just standing around talking while eating. Shoshana led me through the kitchen and filled my plate with a latke, some brisket, some coleslaw, some type of bean stew she called “cholent”…all of it wonderfully delicious and all of it filling me up in the same way that my heart seemed to be filling up with Shoshana talking to me the whole time, treating me more like old family than a stranger introduced only hours before.

A brief ceremony to light the candles – three that night, plus the extra one, called a “shammas” used to light the others – a short prayer, some singing and a few words from a young Rabbi who apparently ran this house. The prayers and songs were in Hebrew, so I could not tell what they were about, not until Shoshana asked me to join in, and I confessed that I was not Jewish.

“I knew that, silly boy. I was just playing with you.”

“You knew? Then why did you ask me to come with you here tonight?” I asked her.

“You don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy yourself, or to celebrate freedom from oppression, which is what Chanukah is about. You don’t even need to be able to pronounce it right – the “ch” is a tough one – just call it Hanukah if you like.”

“Don’t you have other friends – Jewish friends – that you would rather have asked to come with you?”

“I do. I have lots of Jewish friends. I also have lots of non-Jewish friends. None of them are as sexy as you are, though.”

That was question number one, answered very directly. Why.

“Sexy?” I stuttered back.

“Don’t be coy now. I’ve seen you looking at me in class. And I guess you’ll deny it now, right? Or you’ll deny noticing me looking at you too? I noticed you when you raised your hand that time in class, and talked about the different conceptions of heaven and hell. I knew instantly you weren’t Jewish, the way you talked. If anything maybe a Catholic when you started talking about sin. But definitely not Jewish. But also most definitely very bright, very articulate, very sincere and also very sexy.”

“Thank you,” was all I could manage to say.

“And what did you notice about me?” she asked.

Here was my chance to disprove her illusions about bright, articulate and sincere. Red hair. Pale skin. Curves. Attraction. Fetish. Mistaking her for an Irish Catholic. Here was my perfect chance to escape, if I so desired, simply by opening up my mouth and being myself.

“I’m not sure,” I blurted out. “I’m really not sure.”

Honest. Mostly honest. And as of that moment, standing there with some brisket stuck between my teeth, and my clothes now smelling of fried onions, I was being honest.

“Good answer,” she said. “Better than lying and talking about my eyes or my voice. Classier than mentioning my tits too.”

Tits? Did she really say “tits” in this house. This woman who only a few hours before was just some fetish on my radar, she was now saying “tits” to me and telling me I was sexy.

“Hope I didn’t offend you. Sorry. I should have said “breasts”, right?”

“No, tits is fine. I’m good with them.”

Fuck. Stupid thing to say. “I’m good with them”. With what? Her tits?

“Good. We’ve got that out of the way,” she shot back at me. “Glad you like them.”

The rest of the house seemed a blur to me. People coming and going, many of them young like myself and Shoshana, some older (later learning the Rabbi invited some of his family over), food being served, eaten, paper plates thrown away, songs being sung, and through it all, the constant source of focus was Shoshana. No questions asked about me, but she kept explaining the rituals, the symbolism of the foods, like the jelly donuts, she called them “sufganyot”, the link between the oil used to fry the foods and the oil for the Menorah in the Temple which lasted eight days, when there was only enough to last one day. The miracle of the holiday of light.

“What are those?” I asked, pointing to a table with numerous colorful plastic objects, and some wooden ones, all shaped like a cube with a pointy end, with a small stem at the top, and with symbols on their four sides.

“That’s a dreidel. In Hebrew it is called a “sevivon” – it is a top. You spin it as part of a game we play.”

“Game? For a religious ceremony?”

“No. A game. For children. For adults. Not religious in the usual way. But simply a game. And the four sides have Hebrew letters on them. “Nun” is like “N”, “Gimmel” is like “G”, “Hay” is like “H”, and then “Shin” which is the sound “SH”. They stand for words.”

“What words?” I asked.

“Nes Gadol Hayah Sham”, she replied, “which means a great miracle happened there, referring to the oil in the Temple , and also the defeat of the enemy of the Jewish people.”

“What are the rules?”

“There are so many ways to play, but children often bet on which letter the dreidel will land on when spun, and the winner gets Chanukah gelt – gelt is money in German or Yiddish – but the kids get chocolate coins as their reward. It is like rolling dice.”

“What, like playing craps? You see, that’s why I am not Jewish. I am not a big fan of games of chance or of chocolate. Winning when I spin the dreidel wouldn’t be such a reward for me.”

“There are eight days of Chanukkah, silly, and tonight is only the third night. I’ll find something for you as a reward if you play the game, something besides chocolate. Here. Take one of the dreidels home with you. Practice spinning it. Tonight is only Wednesday, and I’m here through Sunday before I head home for the winter break. I have some things to take care of the next few days, but how about we get together on Saturday night again. Somewhere a bit more quiet, maybe for dinner.”

“I’d like that,” I said, as I smiled at Shoshana.

“No plans. I like to be spontaneous. Let’s just meet up. Same place. Same time. 7:00 Saturday.”

“It’s a date,” I said, as she led me to the door, and we walked out into the cold night air.

“And don’t forget to practice spinning your dreidel,” she said, after we had made our way back in silence to our meeting place, holding hands along the way, and then we parted ways into the darkness.

Saturday came. The days in between that first night and Saturday were filled with routine chores. Cleaning out the refrigerator of perishables, since I would be away for three weeks. Cancelling newspaper delivery for the holidays. Getting the car tuned up and the oil changed before driving back home. Sending out “Seasons Greetings” cards to family and friends – and even to my parents, in an act of moderate defiance. Merry Christmas would have been too strong for my father, but Seasons Greetings was relatively neutral. It could simply mean hello for the winter.

Shoshana and I had not even exchanged last names, let alone cell phone numbers. The intervening days were passed in silent contemplation of Saturday night, wondering if she would really be there at 7:00, or if the Chanukkah party had simply been some kind of dream. But it was real. Each time I took the yellow, plastic dreidel in my hands and tried to spin it, I knew it had been real. I even searched on the internet how to spin a dreidel, watching videos of young children showing off their skills, some while singing the same Chanukah songs I heard at the party at Chabad.

Saturday night came, and I walked to the meeting place, to find Shoshana already waiting for me.

“Hey silly, I wasn’t sure if you’d come tonight or not. I was afraid I scared you off with all the fried food. Maybe you thought that’s why I am a bit on the zaftig side.”

Zaftig was a word I knew. That, along with schmuck, had made its way from Yiddish into common parlance, so I knew what she meant.

“You look wonderful,” I replied. “You wear those latkes well.”

She smiled at me, happy that I remembered the right word for the potato pancakes.

“I was thinking,” she started, and then paused. “I was thinking about tonight, and how I am heading back home tomorrow for a few weeks. I was thinking how I’d like to talk and find out a bit more about you, and restaurants can be noisy and distracting. I was thinking that maybe you’d like to come over and we could order a pizza and just talk for a while. I was thinking…”

I interrupted her this time. “I was thinking that would be lovely.”

She smiled again. And without another word, she took my hand and led me along a ten minute walk down the streets in the student ghetto, until we reached a small apartment building, and she led me inside and up two flights of stairs to where her apartment was, and she opened the door and pointed to her sofa.

“Sit down, be comfortable. Let me call Antonio’s for the pizza. Plain cheese ok for you? I’m not much into toppings.”

“Plain cheese is fine. I’m flexible.”

She took her cellphone out of her purse and called and ordered. We took off our coats, laying them on a chair, shoes off at the front entrance, and sat on her sofa talking and waiting. Time sped by, and while I remember the pizza arriving, and us eating at her kitchen table, the other details of what we talked about never registered. We finished dinner, cleaned up, and went back to the living room, sitting next to each other on the sofa.

“So, have you been practicing?” she asked. I looked blankly at her.

“The dreidel, silly. Have you been practicing spinning your new dreidel?”

“Oh, the dreidel…yes, and I’ve had some lessons from some young children on the internet…”

“And do you remember what the letters are…and what they stand for?”

“Nun, Gimmel, Hay, Shin…Nes Gadol Hayah Sham…a great miracle happened there.”

“I’m impressed. And I am touched that you took the time to learn this. For me. Well, I took some time to think about you, and about the game we should play, knowing you don’t like chocolate.”

“I’m not averse to chocolate. If you really want to…”

“No, you showed me respect at the party, and since then, of learning about the dreidel. Now I will show you the same respect too, and not speak of chocolate again.”

“So what is the game?”

“Easy. We each have a dreidel. You can spin first. If it lands on Nun, then I have to remove a piece of clothing. If it lands on Gimmel, you remove one. If it lands on Hay, then you have to kiss me somewhere, of your choosing. If it lands on Shin, then I get to kiss you somewhere that I choose.”

“Shoshana…you don’t have to…”

“To what? Play this kind of game? I told you that I thought you were sexy. I’ve wanted to talk to you all semester but I wasn’t sure how to start. Well, Chanukah celebrates freedom from oppression, and while getting naked together may not be what the Rabbi at Chabad envisions, for me this is about freedom from my fear of meeting someone new. It is about having the courage to shed my fears and to simply express who I am, and to express what I want. I want you to play this game.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Say nothing. Just spin the dreidel. I have mine, a red one. We go back and forth, and when I spin, the rules are the same, just reversed. Go ahead, silly. Spin.”

I took the dreidel in my hand, pulling it from my pocket, and I held it by its stem. I spun it on the floor in front of us. The yellow dreidel was a blur, the letters unrecognizable, and especially so to me, a novice. Slowly the spinning waned, and the dreidel came to rest. “Hay,” I said.

“Hay? My eyes are closed, silly boy. Kiss me. Anywhere you want.”

I leaned forward toward Shoshana, and kissed her on her cheek. Her full lips were so inviting, but to this point we had only held hands. I dared not be too forward, even in the face of her being very forward with me. I kissed her on her cheek, and savored the moment, being so close and smelling her sweet perfume as it filled my nostrils, and as the taste of her soft skin met my lips.

“Shy boy,” she whispered. “Playing it safe. Now it’s my turn.”

Shoshana took her red dreidel in her hand, and with a familiarity of years of childhood spinning dreidels, let hers go onto the floor with a confidence I had lacked. It spun around, and came to rest after what seemed an interminable spin. Gimmel.

“You know what Gimmel means? Take something off, Alex. Take it off.” She savored that last word, “off” and looked right into my eyes.

I stood up and boldly unbuttoned my jeans, then I unzipped them and pulled them off, leaving me standing fully clothed from the waist up, but only in socks and a pair of striped briefs below.

“Losing you shyness, silly. That’s good. You could have taken off your shirt…I see you have a t-shirt underneath there…but your jeans? Mmmm…I like how you learn the game so quickly.”

“My turn,” I said tersely, feigning annoyance. “All of this talk? Let’s play.”

I spun my dreidel with purpose this time. Round and round it went, until it landed. Gimmel.

“Take it off…take it off,” I chanted, as if encouraging an exotic dancer at a stag party. “Take it off!”

Shoshana stood up, a mere foot away from me, and she too unbuttoned her pants, unzipping them, and pulling them down to her ankles and then throwing them off. She stood before me in a pale blue thong, and I could easily tell that she was completely shaved down below, and a faint, damp spot was forming on the material. She spun around in front of me, like a dreidel herself, and her full, firm buttocks presented themselves to me briefly as she turned, stopping herself so that she again faced me.

“Time’s a’ wastin’, my boy,” she said with a horribly fake Southern accent. “My turn.”

She bent over to reach her dreidel on the floor, and in doing so her buttocks ended up right in my face. I could smell her wetness and arousal through the thin material of her thong. She spun the dreidel and then stood up, her rear still close to my face.

Shin.

“You choose, Alex. Kiss me. Kiss me anywhere. You choose, but make it fast. Come on, I am closing my eyes.”

She stood before me now, facing me as I sat on her sofa, her eyes closed. I bent forward, knowing exactly where I wanted to kiss her this time, and I too closed my eyes and placed my lips directly on the front of her thong, perhaps just an inch above where the wetness was beginning to seep through the cotton. I kissed her just above her labia, which were clinging to the material and clearly visible in outline through the thong. I kissed her, and in a brief moment of courage, I stuck out my tongue and licked around the edges of the thong on her silky skin.

“When did I say you could use your tongue?” she asked, slowly and in a monotone. “I said kiss me, not lick me.”

I froze in fear, thinking I may have gone too far.

“I…I’m sorry, Shoshana…I just could not…I mean, when I…”

She opened her eyes and started laughing. She bent over and took my head in her hands, pulled me toward her, and kissed me hard and quick on the lips.

“You silly boy…fuck off…you’re not sorry…neither am I…I was just kidding you. That felt so incredible. So gentle and tentative, and yet so bold and decisive. I loved it.”

A wave of relief washed over me, and I felt the blood returning to my heart and to my head.

“I loved it. But I am damn afraid too. Because I think I love you, and I don’t even know your last name. I loved what you did, and I think I love you too.”

She was still holding my head in her hands, keeping my face close to hers.

“I’ve had enough of the game. Just one more spin of the dreidel. One for each of us. Depending on where it lands, for each of us, that will dictate what happens next. But then, no more games. I don’t have the patience for that now. Just one more spin each. Let’s go already.”

We looked at each other, and while I could not fathom what was in her mind, I drew upon my high school math class to try to calculate probabilities on random events. We looked at each other, and each of us spun our dreidels and watched as they danced together on the floor, spinning blurs of yellow and red doing a dance of avoidance with each other, until they drew close together and hit one another, abruptly ending the spinning and ending the game, as they flew in opposite directions on the floor.

“Nun,” I heard from Shoshana as she looked at her dreidel.

I glanced down and saw my own dreidel. I leaned in closer, and in a silent murmur to myself, under my breath, I uttered words that I never thought I could say. “Please God, let it be Shin.”

I saw the letter facing upwards. “Shin,” shouted Shoshana, before I could speak it myself.

“So I remove one piece of clothing, but then I get to kiss you somewhere of my choosing.” She winked at me as she finished her sentence, as if she knew what I had prayed for.

I watched as she reach down to her waist and grabbed the hem of her shirt, and slowly lifted it up and over her head. She was naked beneath her shirt, not wearing a bra. She had a slight tummy, rounded but not fat, and her breasts were as pale as the skin on her face, with pale pink nipples. Her breasts were full and soft, or so they appeared soft, and I stood there before her, transfixed by her beauty, as she stood there clad only in that pale blue thong, which was now visibly wet in spots.

She walked toward me, and took my hand. She began to lead me toward an open door, to another room, which was dark within.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me?” I asked. “And where? That was the game.”

“Where is an open-ended term. It could refer to where on your body, or it could mean where in this apartment. I want to kiss you in my bedroom, and then you can decide if you want to stay in there, or if you want to come back out here. I think you know what the choices will mean. If you come back out here, it means you will get dressed again and be going home at some point tonight. If you stay in my bedroom, then that is where you will stay tonight. It is your choice. No spinning the dreidel to decide.”

Shoshana led me into her bedroom. She closed the door behind us, and the room was completely dark except for the faintest bit of light that came in under the door, and that caught her eyes and illuminated them. In the darkness she pulled me close to her, and I felt the warmth of her body against mine. In the darkness she pulled me close to her and put her arms around me, and kissed me on the lips, and held me in that kiss for what seemed to be an eternity, one in which I felt myself held close to her and safe, but also spinning around wildly inside, as my mind envisioned each of the four letters on the dreidel, as if hoping the images would decide for me. As if hoping the dreidel would tell me to stay or to go.

I awoke the next morning to bright sunshine coming through the window blinds. I was lying naked beneath the sheets, the room cold and the sheets only barely keeping my body heat close to me. I awoke the next morning to the sounds of a small piece of plastic dropping to the floor, and I looked beside the bed to see Shoshana, sitting naked and cross-legged on the cold, bare floor of her bedroom, playing with my yellow dreidel.

“I have spun it several dozen times at least, sleepyhead,” she said to me, “and I have gotten all four letters several times over. What do you think of that?”

I thought much of it, because the letters now had meaning to me. Nun. Gimmel. Hay. Shin. Nes Gadol Hayah Sham. I thought of that moment Shoshana had turned to me after the exam, and said hello. A great miracle happened there.

And I thought of the game we had played in her living room the night before. Nes Gadol Hayah Sham. In the simplicity of spinning a children’s top, in playing a game, a great miracle had happened there. I found love for the first time, and I found my faith for the first time.

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