When Mom and Dad have a really juicy tidbit to share that they don't want the kids to hear, they whisper it quietly. If the kids come in the room they change the topic to something boring. Kids pick up the trick. When they are playing with the sensational and forbidden, they keep something innocuous around. When an adult or a snitch is coming they quickly hide the contraband and make a big deal of playing with the boring, innocuous decoy. Lookouts are great.
Time was, when getting caught meant more than losing allowance, or a trip to the principal's office. Stalin expropriated minors caught with a Jewish prayer book and threw them into state orphanages. My father's cousin Hessel was among them. (He survived.) "Nadir, nadir, nadir, nisht zogen soidos fun cheder," Never, Never, never, don't tell the secrets, they were drilled. Their decoy was often a game of red-light-green-light. Yellow light signaled caution; red light, full alert.
In Hellenic Israel accused children were forced to bow before Zeus and swallow bacon. In one instance seven sons, beginning with the eldest, were each commanded to bow, each refused and each met death. Except the youngest. Their mother begged Antiochus Epiphanes to speak privately with the two-year-old. Do not betray your brothers, she encouraged her baby, be worthy of them, and when you join them, tell Father Abraham that while he prepared one son for sacrifice, I prepared seven.
The decoy of choice in Hellenic Israel was a simple spinning top, which archeology indicates was common then. Dray, as in Dreidel, is Yiddish for spin, hence its popularity continues under this name.
Whether in ancient Israel or recent Russia, the punishment revealed the bond between child and book in all its remarkable dimensions. In both cases, children's games braced the parents to rebel with the sword when feasible, to endure the gulag when not.
I once helped a prison deputy warden process Chanukah gifts donated by a Jewish group.
What's this? he fingered a purple, plastic Dreidel.
It's part of the holiday celebration, I assured him.
It has a treasured significance, I added, but I don't think that is what you were asking. He laughed appreciatively.
Should I have told him the two-and-a-half -millennia saga of this unpretentious pressed plastic, imbued with the blood of the martyred, the tears of the pious, the endurance of the faithful?
Oh Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel, I made you out of clay, and the Almighty Himself breathed into you a soul of fire and you in turn tempered in His people a will of steel. And as you do your exuberant spin, your dance of contagious ecstasy, we dance along with you.
Against your dance iron curtains fall. So we will spin your dance and spin your tale until the Almighty has you and us land in the land. And when this spin is over, whatever letter we land on we will know: A great miracle happened there.