The Story of the Chanukah Classic “I Have a Little Dreidel”

The classic song about the traditional four-sided top has become a staple in early childhood Jewish education.  

Illustration by Iza Hershkovitz

For those who grew up within Jewish tradition or for those familiar with Jewish music, there are several songs that seem to have been around forever. Included on that list is one song that is often taught to children ahead of the holiday of Chanukah to get them into the spirit of the season.

The song “I Have a Little Dreidel” describes the creation of the four-sided spinning top that is used to play the traditional game of dreidel during the Festival of Lights. With its catchy, cheerful and spirited tune and simple to remember lyrics, the song quickly became a holiday classic.

The Lyrics:

I have a little dreidel,  I made it out of clay.
And when it’s dry and ready, oh dreidel I shall play.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel I shall play.

It has a lovely body, with legs so short and thin.
When it is all tired, it drops and then I win.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel I shall play.

My dreidel’s always playful. It loves to dance and spin.
A happy game of dreidel, come play now let’s begin.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made it out of clay.
Oh dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel I shall play.

Interestingly enough, according to research by Professor Eliyahu Schleifer, this song was composed by Shmuel Eliezer Goldfarb, the brother of the famous Conservative Rabbi Israel Goldfarb who composed another classic and seemingly timeless Jewish melody, “Shalom Aleichem,” that is traditionally sung on Friday nights to welcome in the Shabbat.

Rabbi Israel Goldfarb was a rabbi and educator in New York who worked for the Young Israel movement. His mission was to renew Jewish liturgy and ceremonies in America using traditional musical motifs. Shmuel Eliezer Goldfarb, his brother, served as the Director of the Music Education Ministry on the Jewish Education Council in New York. This gave Shmuel the opportunity to promote the teaching of music in local schools. The two musical brothers collaborated to promote the teaching of Jewish music and from 1918 to 1929 they published books and pamphlets that compiled different songs to use for various holidays and occasions.

Hanukkah celebrations in Raanana in 1948. From the PhotoHouse archive. Photo taken by Rudi Weissenstein.
Chanukah celebrations in Raanana in 1948. From the PhotoHouse archive. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein.

Their joint effort came to an end with the start of the Great Depression. Israel stayed in his rabbinical position, but Shmuel Eliezer moved across the country to Seattle where he served for 38 years, from 1930 to 1968, as music director and choir conductor at the Reform synagogue, Temple De Hirsch Sinai.

Shmuel is most famous for his composition of the song “I Have a Little Dreidel.” The melody was first taught in Seattle schools and then spread across the country, becoming a fixture in early childhood Jewish education and a classic part of the Chanukah repertoire in North America.

Shmuel Eliezer Goldfarb passed away ten years after retiring from his position at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in 1978, leaving behind a legacy of poetry and music.

drediel dance
Chanukah celebrations in Raanana in 1948. From the PhotoHouse archive. Photo by Rudi Weissenstein.

“I Have a Little Dreidel,” is also available in Yiddish. The Yiddish version entitled “Ich Bin a Kleyner Dreydl,” was written by Shmuel Shlomo Grossman. While the melody of the Yiddish version of the dreidel song is similar to the English version, the lyrics differ with the Yiddish song describing a dreidel made of lead instead of clay and as the dreidel spins, the people join in and spin as well.

The Yiddish version reads:

Ich bin a kleiner dreidel, gemacht bin ich fun blai.
Kumt lomir ale schpilen, in dreidel – eins zwei drai.
Oi, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oi, drei sich, dreidel, drei.
To lomir ale schpilen, in dreidel eins un zwei

Un ich hob lib zu tanzen, sich dreien in a rod
To lomir ale tanzen, a dreidel-karahod.
Oi, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oi, drei sich, dreidel, drei.
To lomir ale schpilen, in dreidel eins un zwei.

Which in English reads:

I am a little dreidel, I am made from lead.
Come let’s all play dreidel – one two three.
Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh, dreidel, dreidel, spin.
So let’s all play dreidel, one and two.

And I love to dance, to spin in a circle.
So let’s all dance a dreidel-circle.
Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, oh dreidel, dreidel, spin.
So let’s all play dreidel, one and two.

Both versions of the song express the fun and happiness that comes with the annual celebration of the Festival of Lights and the joyful experience that awaits all who sit down for a good rousing game of dreidel.

Special thanks to Dr. Gila Flam, Head of the music department: music collection and sound archive and music reading room, for her help in writing this article.


The Jewish Boy Who Was Secretly Baptized and Kidnapped by the Catholic Church

In accordance with Papal law, Jewish families were not permitted to raise Catholic children. Once news of his baptism leaked, Edgardo Mortara was taken into custody by the Vatican.


"The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," painting by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1862

It all started with a well-meaning decision. A decision that, without the intention of inflicting harm or pain, would change the lives of an entire family and forever impact public opinion of the Catholic Church.

Edgardo Mortara was born in 1851, the sixth of eight children born to a Jewish Italian family living in Bologna. When he was just a few months old, Edgardo fell seriously ill and, despite his doctor’s best efforts and the desperate prayers of his parents and loved ones, his condition did not improve.

During this time, the Mortara family employed a 16-year-old Catholic maid named Anna Morisi. Anna watched the young boy grow ever sicker. Assuming there was nothing left to be done for the poor child, the young maid took it upon herself to secretly baptize Edgardo in the hopes that, if God decided it was time to take him from this world, at least she would have saved his soul. Without asking for the permission of his parents or considering the potential repercussions of her actions, Anna baptized Edgardo. To the surprise of those around him, the boy grew stronger, conquered his illness and returned to full health.

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At least, that was the story Anna Morisi told her priest during confession six years later.

In accordance with his dedication and loyalties to the Church and their rulings, the priest reported the story to the proper authorities who immediately took action. After all, according to the law of the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition, a child who underwent baptism – even unofficially – was undeniably Catholic and the law of the Papal States strictly forbade families of other faiths to raise Catholic children.

Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX
Papal Soldiers of Pope Pius IX.

The knock on the door came on a peaceful July evening in 1857. The quiet atmosphere of the Mortara home was quickly shattered as papal soldiers stormed the house and seized six-year-old Edgardo, informing the family that their son was no longer theirs to keep. The boy was ripped from the protective arms of his stunned parents and taken directly to the Vatican.

News of the kidnapping of Edgardo and the plight of the Mortara family quickly spread across the globe. Major international figures including the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef I and Napoleon III of France tried to influence Pope Pius IX to return the child to his family to no avail.  The Church insisted that the law was clear: once the boy had been baptized, he was undeniably Catholic and could not be raised by Jewish parents.

Evidence was brought forth proving that the maid was not a trustworthy person and had been dismissed from the Mortara home and the homes of several subsequent employers. The Mortaras denied that Edgardo had ever been seriously ill which made the purpose of the secret baptism completely irrelevant and refuted any right the Catholic Church had to take the child – for if the baptism was never necessary it should not have taken place, leaving the child as nothing more than Jewish.

Sir Moses Montefiore
Sir Moses Montefiore, from the Abraham Schwadron Portrait Collection at the National Library of Israel.

Sir Moses Montefiore, activist, philanthropist and president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, took up the cause of the Mortara family, writing letter after letter to communities in America and Europe in the hopes of rallying more support for the Mortara family and to increase the pressure on the Church to return the boy to his rightful home. After several months of advocating in Britain, Montefiore and the Board of Deputies decided that more drastic measures were necessary to gain traction with the Church. He packed his bags and prepared to travel to Rome to try and appeal to Pope Pius IX directly in the hopes of finally reuniting the boy and his family.

Bevis Marks Synagogue
Interior of the Bevis Marks Synagogue, London. Image from the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University.

Before he left on this mission of vital importance, the Synagogue of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews (the Bevis Marks Synagogue) in London where Montefiore was a participating member, prepared a special prayer that was read during services by the congregation to beseech the heavens for his success. With the prayers of his community to strengthen him, Montefiore and his wife set out on their journey with the knowledge that they were to face many tough battles ahead.

prayer was written in honour of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859
Prayer in honor of Montefiore’s mission to Rome in April 1859. From the National Library of Israel collections. Click image to enlarge.

Upon his arrival in the Italian capital city, Montefiore had several of his contacts reach out to the pope on his behalf in an attempt to receive an audience with him. As the days dragged on into weeks, he began to understand that this mission was not going to be a success. Several weeks after his arrival in Rome, Montefiore finally received a response to his inquiry for a papal audience: “To my sincere disappointment,” wrote his contact, “I am informed that the pope would not receive you. His Holiness could not permit any discussion of the Mortara case, it being a closed question.”

In place of a meeting with the Pope, Montefiore was granted an audience with the Cardinal Secretary of State, who, after hearing the pleas of Montefiore, cynically suggested that at the age of 18, the Mortara boy would be given a choice on whether to remain in the Catholic Church or to return to his family but that until then, he would be raised and educated in accordnce with the Catholic faith. Despite what turned out to be a generally unproductive meeting, the Cardinal did agree to allow the Mortaras to visit their son.

Conflicting narratives emerged as to what happened during the parental visits with Edgardo. According to one account, the child would desperately cling to his parents and cry that he wanted to return to his home. The other version of events claimed that the child was enlightened and emboldened by the spirit of redemption and was heartbroken that he could not convince his parents to convert and join his new way of life.

Edgardo Mortara with his parents
Edgardo Mortara (right) with his mother.

After weeks of effort, Sir Moses Montefiore left Rome and returned home having been unsuccessful in his attempts to meet with the pope. Edgardo Mortara remained unwaveringly in the custody of the Church despite the international attention and pressure imparted on the Vatican.

Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940
Bnai Brith Messenger, May 10, 1940.

The Mortara family continued to advocate for the return of their son to no avail. Edgardo Mortara became a priest at the age of 21 having trained under the pope himself from childhood. He dedicated his life to the Church, traveling throughout Europe and preaching his religion, until his death in Belgium in 1940.

Special thanks to Karen Ettinger from the Education Department at the NLI for her assistance in writing this post. Click here to view the NLI Education website.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.

For additional information on Montefiore’s visit to Rome, read “Anglo-Jewry and the Mortara Case,” available in the National Library collection.


The Jewish Books That Were Plundered by the Nazis

Millions of books were stolen by the Nazis during World War II. These books were utilized by the Nazis to "investigate" the "Jewish problem."

ERR operatives arrange stolen books in Eastern Europe (Photo: Yad Vashem)

During World War II, the Nazi forces confiscated millions of books from institutions and archives across Europe from “enemies of the regime” which included Bolsheviks, Freemasons, Jews, and others. According to one estimate, approximately five million books were taken from Jewish libraries and Jewish collections over the course of the war. The stolen publications included books on Jewish studies, poetry, and Hebrew literature along with sacred books, manuscripts, and books on science and culture that were written in several languages including Hebrew, Yiddish, Polish, and German.

The Reich Institute for the History of New Germany (Reichinstituts für Geschichte des Neuen Deutschlands), was founded in 1935 and was one of the most significant destinations for stolen books – Jewish books in particular.  The director of the institute was the Nazi historian Walter Frank. Some of his writings published by the institute can be found in the National Library.


Walter Frank, Deutsche Wissenschaft und Judenfrage, Hamburg, 1937

The two main bodies that collected Jewish books were the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt) and the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). The Reich Main Security Office was founded by Heinrich Himmler and was considered to be the strongest branch of the Third Reich as it included the Gestapo forces, the police, the Einsatzgruppen, and other departments. The ministry was responsible for identifying security threats to the country from its enemies within a jurisdiction that included all occupied countries. One of the departments of the institution, headed by Dr. Franz Alfred Six, worked to collect entire libraries from various parts of Europe for the purpose of investigating the ideological enemies of the Nazi regime.

In 1933, the same year that the Nazi party rose to power, the book confiscations began. The first stage focused on the Freemasons and later grew to include Jewish libraries. With the annexation of Austria, the Jewish collection of the Reich Main Security Office grew to eighty-five thousand volumes. Twenty-four thousand of these books eventually found their way to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, what later became the National Library of Israel. As more Eastern European countries were occupied, more public and private libraries were raided and their contents were sent to the central library in Berlin.

Books and treasures confiscated by the Nazis in Ratibor. Photo: Yad Vashem

Nearly two million books accumulated in the central depository of the ministry, but the Reich Main Security Office focused most of its attention on archival material including personal documents, community books, and other information – documents that could help them investigate, identify and annihilate their enemies including the Jews.

With the start of the American bombing of Berlin in 1943, much of the collection was transferred to Silesia and Bavaria for safekeeping. Some sixty thousand Jewish books were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto where they were cataloged and kept separately from the ghetto library. After the war, the Theresienstadt books were turned over to the Jewish Museum in Prague. The books that remained in the Reich Main Security Office in Berlin were discovered by the Soviet and American forces, respectively (there were two separate buildings for the library in Berlin).

In the end, most of the collection (including many Jewish books and archival documents) fell into the hands of the Soviet Army. It was only with the collapse of the Soviet Union that these books were allowed to be examined by the Russian authorities. A relatively small amount of the materials were returned to previous owners and the fate of the majority of the material confiscated by the Russians is unknown.

The other entity that competed with the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany and the Reich Main Security Office in obtaining the books was the book confiscation unit established by Alfred Rosenberg called the ERR. Though, in terms of the quantity of material stolen, this organization had no real ability to compete with the Nazi security services.

In 1939, Alfred Rosenberg, the chief ideologue of the Nazi party, began laying the foundations for the establishment of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party (Hohe Schule der NSDAP). This institution was set to become the center of Nazi academic studies. Hitler planned to open the school after Germany’s victory in the war and ordered Rosenberg to carry out the preparatory work with a focus on research and the establishment of a library.

Alfred Rosenberg at the ERR headquarters. (Photo: Yad Vashem)

The Advanced School of the Nazi Party was meant to include eleven research institutes throughout Germany, specializing in the fields of religion, race, folklore, German studies and more. In reality, the only research institute that was ever established was the Institut zur Erforschung der Judenfrage (IEJ). This institute was opened in Frankfurt and, as every academic institution does, it needed a respectable library. When establishing a library of this sort, books are typically purchased by the institution or received as donations – but the Nazis had a different method.

Rosenberg established a special unit that he named after himself. The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) was tasked with touring the major libraries of occupied countries and organizing shipments of the important books back to Germany. The ERR focused mainly on France and the Netherlands at the start of the war, robbing many famous libraries and several Jewish collections including the Rosentiliana Collection, the Etz Chaim collection in Amsterdam, the Library of the Rabbinical Seminary and the Alliance organization in Paris.

When Germany invaded Russia and Rosenberg became responsible for the collection of publications in the occupied territories in the east, many additional Jewish libraries fell into his grasp. The ERR confiscated every collection that appeared significant to its operatives and the rest were sent off to be destroyed. Books destined for the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem were sent to Frankfurt and books intended for the other institutes of the Nazi Party’s Advanced School (for a later time when the institute would be opened) as well as books with an unclear destination, were sent to the Central Library in Berlin. Books that arrived in Berlin and were deemed unnecessary for academic purposes were distributed to libraries of universities and other institutions in Germany. Some remain there to this today.

The books at the Institute in Frankfurt were found by the US military after the war. The military and, later, the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization, actively returned books to their former owners and worked to find new homes for the “orphaned” books, like the National Library.

A map describing the ERR’s field of activity. Collection centers for stolen books were established in several cities in Europe.

The Institute for the Study of the Jewish Problem regularly published an academic journal called “Weltkampf.” Some of the researchers who published articles in the journal were assisted by the large library that had been accumulated there. In the summer issue of 1941, the list of authors includes Alfred Rosenberg himself who, in the same issue, published an article on the connection between Nazism and science. The issue also includes two articles published by the Institute’s director, Wilhelm Grau. Grau was director of the Department for the Study of the Jewish Problem at the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany until the director of the institute, Walter Frank, was dismissed and Grau took his place.

Weltkampf die judenfrage in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Frankfurt am Main 1941

A list of new books published on the subject appears at the end of each issue of this journal. It is quite astonishing to go over the list and see how many publications (books and articles) about Jews were written in the midst of the war and the Holocaust. In 1944, as the Germans suffered painful defeats in the east and as the Allies bombed German cities and prepared to invade the West, anti-Semitic academics continued to sit in the ivory tower, researching and publishing on the “Jewish problem.” It is even more astonishing to see that some of the books that came to the Institute in these years originated in the United States and England. How did they arrive in Germany from enemy states? Perhaps through a neutral state?

The Weltkampf periodicals came to the National Library after the Holocaust via Austria where many of the collections of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party were sent. They were kept at the monastery of Tenzenberg and found there after the war by British forces. Later, many other books were found and donated to the survivors of the Jewish community in Vienna. In turn, the community decided to donate these books to the National Library in Jerusalem. A few thousand books were sent to Israel in the late 1940s and about eighty thousand more books arrived in 1955. All of these books have been labeled to indicate their origins.


Some of the books that came from Austria to Jerusalem feature the stamp of the Advanced School of the Nazi Party – the institution that sponsored the “study of Jews without Jews” (Judenforschung ohne Juden) – alongside the stamp of the National Library of Israel.




The Black Suitcase of Magical Amulets with a Mysterious History

No one knows the exact origins of the little black suitcase filled with hand-written scrolls now kept at the National Library of Israel.

Very little is known about Dr. Max Leopold Brodny’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1959, a trip from which he returned to Chicago with one more suitcase than he had when he left.  The suitcase was small, black, and tattered, but Brodny understood he had received something special and he cared for it and kept in a closet in his home where it stayed until his death in 1979. When dividing Brodny ‘s estate, the suitcase was passed on to his daughter, Eleanor. Like her father before her, she kept the suitcase hidden in her home.

Dr. Max Leopold Brodny, photo courtesy of the family.

Twice Eleanor turned to Judaica researchers in Chicago but they did not have any insights to provide on the suitcase. It was only when Eleanor approached biographer and writer, Stacy Derby, for help in putting the history of the Brodny family down on paper, that the suitcase again played a part in Eleanor’s life. Eleanor showed Stacy the suitcase and told her the story of how it came into her possession.

Eleanor, daughter of Dr. Brodny. Photo courtesy of the family.

The Story of the Suitcase

Let’s return to Dr. Max Brodny’s trip to the Soviet Union in 1959.

During his stay in Moscow, Max visited a synagogue. The local rabbi pulled him into a side room and pushed a black leather suitcase into his hands. “It has no future here – take it away and preserve it,” he begged of the doctor from Chicago, “but be careful – we’re being followed.”

Max listened to the request of the rabbi and took the suitcase with him from the Soviet Union. The contents and the back story of the suitcase intrigued Stacy. She turned to a former professor of hers who in turn put her in touch with the National Library of Israel in the hopes that someone could give her a better idea as to what was hiding within it.

The suitcase Eleanor donated to the National Library of Israel.


The contents of the suitcase and its story also managed to intrigue Dr. Zvi Leshem who received the inquiry. Leshem is the head of the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library of Israel, which specializes in Kabbalah and Jewish Mysticism. He, in turn, told the story to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, the Judaica Curator at the library.

The library’s staff discovered 85 different items in the suitcase, the majority of them (76 to be exact) being small amulets made of parchment or paper, designed for magical purposes. Almost all of them had been hand-written in North Africa at the end of the 19th-century or the early 20th-century, with a few of them written in the Land of Israel or elsewhere. This was determined based on the writing style, or on the names written on the amulet scrolls like Salem ibn Gedaal or Sultana Bat Istariliya. In one or two cases, the location of origin was clearly written upon the page (“Here in the Land of Israel”).

All of the scrolls were written to summon angels and other heavenly forces to protect against natural and supernatural dangers. Some were written for health, some to protect a pregnant woman and her child, others to defend the home against danger.

Seventy-six of the scrolls were written on paper or parchment of different sizes – the longest of which reaches close to a meter in length. The scrolls were rolled up tightly (a few were folded) making them easy to carry in a pocket or wallet or amulet. Eleven of them were dyed pink, while others were dyed in darker colors.

Seven of the scrolls were written in greater detail, indicating a higher level of skill, especially those that describe the Sephirotic tree – the map of the divine structure according to the Kabbalah.

Another fascinating item from the suitcase, dating back to 19th century North Africa, is a manuscript containing various magical recipes describing how to prepare different kinds of scrolls for a myriad of purposes. It is one of the most damaged items in this extraordinary collection, likely because it was used regularly.

Several pages from the magical recipe book.

As it is unlikely that we will find any additional information about this mysterious suitcase, there is no way of knowing how this rich collection arrived into the hands on the rabbi in Moscow. The lack of European scrolls of this type suggests that the author of the scrolls was probably not a Russian or Eastern European mystic. It is possible that the collection belonged to a researcher or collector who lived in Moscow, and that it was then left to the synagogue following his/her death.  Still, as they say, your guess is as good as ours.

Even if we never find out who put this collection together, the great distances it traveled (from North Africa and the Middle East, through Russia, then to the United States and ultimately Jerusalem), are evidence of what is today increasingly clear to scholars: Jewish magic is not a trivial or marginal pursuit. Though the story we have shared here has many holes, it shows that Jewish magical practices have a day-to-day nature, both historically and contemporarily.

“Throughout history, Jewish communities have busied themselves with magic and demons,” explained Dr. Yoel Finkelman.

After much deliberation and with the generous help of Judaica scholar David Wachtel of New-York, Eleanor decided to donate the collection to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem, along with the little suitcase in which it was kept. Two weeks after the suitcase left for Israel, a pipe burst in Eleanor’s home just where the scrolls had been kept for years. Dr. Finkelman joked that perhaps this is a coincidence, but then again, “maybe not.”

It’s not every day that such a significant donation arrives in the manuscript collection of the National Library. The collection is currently being cataloged, after which it will be scanned and put online, making it accessible to the general public and to researchers of Jewish magic and mysticism – a field that is currently flourishing.

“In donating the collection to the National Library of Israel,” said Eleanor, “we have fulfilled the request of the rabbi from Moscow.”