Even if you’ve never celebrated Hanukkah, you’re probably aware of the dreidel—a small, four-sided teetotum with Hebrew lettering on each side, which is spun by children during the holiday. For many, that’s where their knowledge of the game begins and ends. After all, it’s just kid’s stuff, right?
Well, yeah, more or less, according to Brooklyn-based bar owner Eric Pavony. Kids still play the game—but after a certain age, adults won’t touch it.
"I began asking myself why," Pavony told Civilized. "And the reason was that Dreidel, as a game, is kind of…boring."
So how was it, then, that Pavony took what he termed a "kid’s gambling game of chance," to a competitive sport played by thousands of adults? Well, at first, it was just sort of a distraction for him.
"It was actually conceived in 2006 at my Mom’s famous Hanukkah parties," he explained. "She’s known for throwing these outrageous Hanukkah parties with latkes and vodkas in equal measure. When she served food, she’d actually put dreidels on some of the platters, as decoration. Nobody ever actually played with them."
But, once the party had begun to die down, with only family members and close friends left, Pavony did. "I started spinning the dreidel, late into the night, and started focusing on just how long I could spin it."
After spending some time working out the physics, gauging the weight of the thing, he soon felt that he had more or less mastered it. Turning to his father, he said "I bet I can spin the dreidel longer than you can."
His father, thus challenged, took up his own dreidel. The pair created a makeshift "spin zone" out of his mom’s cookbook, and they began to play. Before long, they had an audience, as friends and relatives began crowding around them, cheering, fist-bumping and clapping.
"All of a sudden, this thing that was always so boring and static, became alive," he recalled.
At first, that was all there was to it—a year passed without Pavony giving it more thought. But, as Hanukkah began to creep up once again, he had another flash of inspiration.
"I was like, didn’t I come up with some really cool rules for this game?" he remembers. "So, I began to flesh them out, made them a little more complex, and coined a name: Major League Dreidel."
The league has since expanded to include games that are closer to the traditional rules, but, in those early days, Pavony realized that their game was all about maintaining that energy. So, it had to remain simple—Who can spin the dreidel in a confined space for a longer period of time? That was the question each round would attempt to answer.
"Spinning a dreidel takes skill," he said. "It’s harder than it seems. If you hit the walls of the spin zone, then it’ll drastically reduce your momentum and therefore reduce your spin time, so it becomes as much a game of precision and finesse as it is about power."
The competition now had a name and rules, but, Pavony still felt that it wasn’t quite "legitimate." Something was missing.
"I realized that every major game is played on something," he said. "Football’s played on a field, baseball is played on a diamond, tennis is played on a court…but, up until 2007, dreidel was played either on the floor or on a table—which it would just fall off. It was infuriating."
That’s when he developed the 'Spinagogue,' a Star of David-shaped spin-zone optimized for sanctioned MLD dreidel play.
The rules and equipment established, Pavony organized the first ever Major League Dreidel tournament at the Sidewalk Café - a bar and restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village in 2007. A couple years prior to this, he had co-created a popular Skee-Ball league he called 'Brewskee-Ball', so the MLD wasn’t his first rodeo. He knew how the mechanics of a tournament ought to work, with qualifying rounds, proper score tabulation and an increasing set of challenges for the strongest competitors.
"There’s an escalating level of difficulty," he said. "Spin zones get smaller and smaller as the rounds progress, so the spinning conditions get a bit more arduous as you get deeper in the bracket."
There were 32 spinners in attendance at this first tournament. A moderate success, but great enough to spur Pavony on to take it to the next level—and he certainly did. At its peak, one tournament, held at New York-based rock club the Knitting Factory, saw 500 spinners turn up for the qualifying round. They were traveling in from across the country to play.
"We saw 15 people from Michigan come down just to play," he said. "We’ve even had a couple people from Hawaii compete."
Groups of players outside of the major league have even begun playing their own mini-tournaments at house parties and synagogues across the world. In a reaction to this interest, Pavony began selling officially sanctioned Spinagogues on the MLD website, where you can also pick up a collection of hardcore covers of traditional Hanukkah songs by New York metal band Gods of Fire.
Even as the event continues to grow, Pavony remains at the head of it. His title? The "Knishioner".
Pavony loves puns. And, clearly, humor is a vital element of the game, with players routinely coming up with silly names to help boost their profile.
"I tell people, 'If you have a good name, you’re nearly there,'" he told Civilized. "Because the better your name - the funnier, the more clever - then the more people are going to cheer you on."
Of course, we had to ask, and yes, there have been players in the past who’ve incorporated some solid weed puns into their names. Highlights have included "Marijuani-kkah" and "Chai Times."
The uninitiated might think that this irreverence is a little odd, given the game’s roots as a old Jewish tradition, but Pavony quickly dismisses these concerns.
"Hanukkah is a fun holiday. It’s not really a religious holiday, so you can sort of get away with a bit more creative license," he explained. "What’s beautiful about it is that it’s not just about Jews spinning. It’s a great gateway into the religion."
That's because Hanukkah isn't as heavy as other Jewish festivals.
"If you go to Yom Kippur, or Rosh Hashanah or even Passover, it can be a bit much for someone who isn’t aware of Jewish customs," he explained. "But Hanukkah - and especially the dreidel - is a great way to introduce people to it. It’s turned a lot of people on to learning more about Judaism."
The tournament even plays on this profusion of goyish interest with games like "Jews versus Joes."
"Everyone I talk to assumes the Jews must rule this, but that’s not necessarily the case," he said. "At the end of the day, it’s about grippin’ it and rippin’ it. Anyone can spin a dreidel, but not everyone can master it."
Although the venue will often change, it is always held somewhere that helps to promote this atmosphere of high spirits and openness.
"I mean, Hanukkah is the festival of lights—it’s a real party," he said. "It’s typically played in a bar, or a music venue sort of environment, so there is a lot of drinking and other things that go on."
So, as you can imagine, there is no drug policy.
"The better you do, the longer you stay in the tournament, the more you tend to consume. So, it definitely weighs into a spinner’s thought process and strategy as far as their consumption goes," he said. "For some people—it helps."
Moving forward, Pavony does have concerns that he might not have the time to fully devote to Major League Dreidel year after year.
"As every Hanukkah approaches, I scramble to do it bigger and better each year," he says, with a hint of frustration. Nevertheless, he still has his ambitions.
"I think that MLD should be on ESPN," he asserted. "I think it would be really great if - for the eight days of Hannukah - to get notable athletes and celebrities playing MLD in a televised event. If they could spin for charity, that’d be even better."
But, barring that, he’s still happy to see it thrive as a game between friends and families.
"It does bring people together. It’s both really social and really competitive," he says. "I think there ought to be a Spinagogue in every home. Every Jewish home, at least."
From his tone, however, it is obvious that he sees this lofty goal as only the beginning.