Life & Culture

Top-spin for the humble dreidel

Eric Pavony set out to make the traditional Chanukah game more exciting - and the spinagogue was born


It all started,” says Eric Pavony, father of Major League Dreidel Spinning and inventor of the ‘Spinagogue’ playing arena, “at one of my mother’s legendary Chanukah parties.”

Pavony, then 27, realised that there were dreidels everywhere, scattered among the piled plates of latkes, but mostly there for decorative purposes.

“None of the adults were spinning the dreidels,” he recalls. “And so I started to think about why that was.” The answer was brutal. He concluded that the traditional game, played by children for sweets or pennies was “no disrespect, but it’s kind of boring.”

So he started thinking about ways to make dreidel spinning more exciting. And as the evening wore on, fuelled by latkes and vodka, he had a brainwave. He created a playing arena from his mother’s cook books and challenged family and friends to compete to see who could spin the dreidel for longest.

At a stroke, dreidel spinning turned from a game of chance to one of skill. “It changed everything.” As the vodka-fuelled party-goers cheered on the cometitors, Pavony realised: “This is what dreidels should be.”

Once Chanukah was over, he forgot all about it, until a year went by and the season of doughnuts and candles was on the horizon. Pavony remembered what fun they’d had at the party. He created a playing arena out of wood “a crude version of what would later become the Spinagogue” , and wrote down the rules. Then he booked the first Major League Dreidel event in a small sidewalk café in Manhattan’s East Village. It was a huge success —“awesome”— with crowds cheering 32 spinners. “It was the most fun anyone ever had with a dreidel,” says Pavony. “The only thing missing was a lighter spinning surface.”

So, with his cousin, he set about creating a board game based on dreidel spinning and the Magan-David-shaped Spinagogue was born. It went on the market in 2009. And, along with Major League Dreidel, it caught on fast.

Events were held in 14 cities all over the US. “At its peak we were playing rock venues, with hundreds of people coming along. In one event we had 200 competitors. People just kept coming!”

Demand grew and grew, and Pavony —who was already running a similar company based on the American game of Skeeball — couldn’t keep up. When he had to turn down a big order from a major chain it was time to put down his dreidel for good. “It was sad but necessary,” he recalls.

But, like the oil in the temple, Spinagogue refused to die. People still clamoured to buy the game and eventually Pavony and a friend set up a kickstarter to start up production again. In recent years they’ve sold about 10,000 Spinagogues for $44 each. Each comes with five dreidels and the rules of five games.

The world record for dreidel spinning is held by a player nicknamed ‘Gelta Force’, and is 18.03 seconds, which in dreidel spinning circles is an “epic” time, says Pavony. For successful spinning he advises keeping space between the dreidel’s stem and base, and avoiding the urge to “grip it and rip it”. Instead apply “grace and finesse” with not too much movement in the arm and body.

Pavony, who lives in Brooklyn is from a traditional Conservative Jewish family, with a strong sense of identity rooted partly in his grandfather’s experience as a survivor of Auschwitz.

Is Chanukah his favourite festival? “Hmm, I think that would have to be Passover. That’s the big one.”

Find out more here.

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