In a gallery carved into a stone wall amid the ancient ruins of Caesarea, Eran Grebler sits at a potter’s wheel shaping clay dreidels.
Outside, tourists explore the old amphitheater, temple and residential quarters of this Israeli city built by King Herod the Great in 30 B.C.E. Caesarea was once the Roman capital of Palestine, the place where the Romans tortured to death Rabbi Akiva. The site of his martyrdom has become one of Israel’s national parks.
Nearby, behind glass doors, Grebler, 47, does what he has been doing for 25 years: He makes elaborate, innovative ceramic dreidels for a living.
“I’m the only one in the world who lives all year for dreidels,” he says.
Grebler’s dreidels are not your typical spinning tops. They don’t have four sides, and they’re not necessarily for Chanukah. Some are round, some are square or fashioned after the Star of David. Others are shaped like a mobile phone, an artist’s palette, even a football field.
All the dreidels are positioned on a circular base. The base has a marker on it, some bit of color or design in one spot. When you spin the dreidel atop the base, whichever letter stops at the marker is the letter you’ve spun.
Some of the dreidels look like carousels, with ceramic spheres dangling off a post that emanates from the base. You spin the post, and the spheres fly into the air.
These dreidels do not use the game’s traditional Hebrew letters. The “Blessing Dreidel,” for instance, has spheres reading “love,” “happiness,” “health,” “joy,” “luck” and “success.” Spin the dreidel, and you get a blessing.
The “Gentleman’s Dreidel” offers men ideas about what to say to women: “I called just to hear your voice,” “I missed you a lot,” “I’m here for you,” “I love you,” etc. This is the one Grebler says he plays with at home.
There are also dreidels that assign household chores (take out the garbage, fold the laundry, wash the floor….), suggest a place to visit (Paris, London, Croatia….), give investment advice (stocks, bonds, short-term loans….) and offer suggestions on how to spend an afternoon (movies, museum, shopping at the mall….).
The dreidels range in price from $7 to $70, and Grebler says he sells thousands a year all over the world. About 500 are on display in his Caesarea gallery, which he calls The Draydel House.
Spinning tops and ceramics have captivated Grebler since he was a child. His father, a mechanical engineer, gave Grebler a water pump from an old Ford engine as his first toy.
“It spun like a dreidel,” Grebler recalls.
The grown man with salt-and-pepper hair reaches for a framed black-and-white photograph on the gallery wall and takes it off the hook. The photograph shows Grebler at 6 years old, standing near a table lined with ceramic urns. There’s a caption in Hebrew printed alongside the picture. Grebler translates: “You can’t say the kid didn’t make his dream come true.”
Grebler’s father liked to take his son to galleries, where the young boy would revel in art. As a high school student, Grebler studied ceramics under a veteran Israeli artist, a friend of his father’s. After the army, Grebler started making a range of Judaica artworks. But people liked his dreidels best. So he made more of them. When he had children, he made dreidels for them.
“I wanted to make people happy,” Grebler says.
His children, now 12, 16 and 18, continue to give him inspiration and sometimes suggestions about what to make. One of his daughters gave him the idea to craft a dreidel shaped as a dancer.
Grebler, who wears an easy smile, said he feels like a kid. A sign in his store says, “Please Spin!”
“Most shops write, ‘Please don’t touch,'” Grebler says. “I want people to touch.”
Sometimes, he works at a wheel in a corner of the gallery, which he opened in 2002.
Usually, he works from a studio in Pardes Hana, near his home.
It takes him two or three weeks to make a batch of dreidels. First, he spins the clay on the wheel. Then, he burns the clay, glazes it and paints on gold and writing. He throws the clay into the fire again, adds more paint and sticks it back in the kiln.
The ceramic dreidels are delicate, so Grebler puts all his on circular bases. A four-sided ceramic dreidel would break when spun, he says.
On the wall behind the gallery’s sales counter is a list of words in different languages for “spinning top” — from “dreidel” or “draydel” in Yiddish to “toupie” in French, “kreisel” in German, “trompo” in Spanish, “trotolla” in Italian and “baczek” in Polish.
The history of the dreidel, too, is written on the wall in Hebrew. The game of dreidel was played in Sardinia at the beginning of the Roman period, the text says. Eventually, Europeans, and especially Germans, adopted it. The Jews learned to play dreidel from the Germans, so the story goes.
According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, Jews began playing dreidel in the early Middle Ages. They labeled the dreidel’s four sides with the Hebrew letters nun, gimmel, he and shin, standing for the Yiddish words nimm, gib, halb and shtell, meaning “take,” “give,” “half” and “put.”
Later, the letters were interpreted to mean “nes gadol hayah sham,” (“a great miracle happened there)”. The Jews of modern Israel changed sham to po, so the letters would spell out “a great miracle happened here.”
For Grebler, the maxim could not hit closer to home. A miracle did happen here. “It was my dream to open a place where people can play,” he says.
To see more of Grebler’s dreidels, go to www.draydelhouse.com
Take These for a Spin
Dreidels come in all colors, shapes and sizes. Here are a few of the most creative ones at Gallery Judaica on Westwood Boulevard.