Winter 2001/5762

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The ESP of the
Jewish Way of Life

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Ethics Spirituality Peoplehood
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Belonging to the Jewish PEOPLE.

I Have a Little Dreidel — 
The True Story 

by Susan Wolfe

    Everyone knows the song, My Dreidel ("I have a little dreidel, I made it out of clay…"). It’s the obligatory Jewish song tossed into the grammar-school Christmas concert to convert it instantly into a multicultural "holiday" program. It’s the first Chanukah song that preschool toddlers learn, it’s the song whose lyrics are printed on plastic holiday ware (the counterpoint to saucers and plates that read "Ho ho ho"), and it’s the Jewish folk song seemingly so old that it’s no longer attributed. 
   But I know who wrote
My Dreidel.
    When he was a young man living in Brooklyn Heights, eking out a living between the Kane Street Synagogue and the Bureau of Jewish Education of New York, my grandfather, Sam Goldfarb, wrote
My Dreidel. In fact, along with his brother, Israel, he wrote many, many liturgical and holiday melodies, including the haunting Shalom Aleichem, the Friday night Kiddush (the blessing over the wine), Adon Olam,and the "traditional" Birkhat Hamazon (blessing after meals). But there is no doubt that My Dreidel is the most famous of them all. 
    I remember the fifth-grade music teacher at Island Park Elementary School on Mercer Island,Washington, introducing the song that our class would sing at the school-wide holiday program. I raised my hand to get her attention. 
   "My Grandpa wrote
My Dreidel!" I boasted enthusiastically. 
   "No one ‘wrote’
My Dreidel," she answered condescendingly." It’s a Jewish folk song." 
   It took a call from my father to convince her otherwise. 
   Years later, as the mother of a preschooler, I found myself frying latkes at the JCC preschool’s Chanukah party. While we sat in a circle enjoying hot latkes, the teacher read a story. Then she began to sing. 
   "I have a little dreidel…" she started. 
   My son, Sam, named for his great-grandfather, the composer, waved his hand wildly. 
   "My mom’s grandpa wrote
My Dreidel," he squealed with delight, and before he could be contradicted, I nodded my acknowledgment. 
    That afternoon, the same teacher taught another class of preschoolers. At their Chanukah party, as she started to sing, one of the dads’ hands shot up in the air. 
   "My wife’s great-uncle Sam wrote
My Dreidel," he announced. 
   That’s how we discovered a new set of cousins, three thousand miles and fourscore and seven years from where so many family stories began, with a young man scratching out a cheerful tune in his well-worn composition book. 
    Grandma and Grandpa moved west just after the stock market crash of 1929. They settled in Seattle, where he got a job as the music director at the city’s large, Reform congregation, Temple de Hirsch (later merged with Temple Sinai to become Temple de Hirsch Sinai). He worked there, organizing and directing adult and children’s choirs, producing holiday plays, and training boys for bar mitzvah, until his retirement in 1969. I remember well how he loved Chanukah. Blessing the candles was never enough — we always sang loads of Chanukah songs as we gathered around the menorah, burning brightly on the piano where Grandpa played. 
   I remember the light in his eyes as he distributed Chanukah
gelt — usually a silver dollar — to each of the seven grandchildren. I remember the affectionate glances between my grandparents as they looked over their lively brood, kvelling (beaming with pride). 
   My love and respect for my grandfather, of blessed memory, are profound. He and my grandmother modeled Jewish family life for all of us blessed to be their grandchildren. His life still influences my daily choices, my love of music, and my serious pursuit of the path of Judaism. He is forever with me. 

   Susan Wolfe is an award-winning author and community leader. She is a graduate of Stanford University and the Wexner Heritage Foundation program in Jewish studies. Her new novel,
The Promised Hand, is based on the life of her grandfather. It is available through booksellers nationwide or online at

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