INFORMANT: “So, dreidel is like the game you play at Chanukah, where you spin the dreidel—it’s like a four-sided top—and bet gelt [chocolate coins] and the different sides do different things. Do I need to, like, explain all of those?”
COLLECTOR: “No, you can skip to the story. People can look that up.”
I: “Okay, sure. So it was, um, six? No, like, a lot of years ago. We were having a Chanukah party with a bunch of not-Jewish friends, and had lit the menorah and were playing dreidel, and my brother’s best friend sucked at it. I mean, it’s a lot of luck, but he lost like all his gelt in like two rounds, but he wanted to keep playing with the rest of us, so we had an onion in the middle of the counter, leftover from making latkes, and he asked if he could bet that to get back in. And we were all like, “sure, whatever,” because we felt bad for him having to sit there. And anyways, he bet this onion to get back in and ended up winning the game. So, as a victory—like to celebrate—he decided to eat the onion, to… honor it or whatever. He’s really weird. And, he takes a huge bite out of this onion, like an apple, and just can’t stop crying for twenty minutes. But now, because of this, every Chanukah when we play dreidel, whoever wins has to take a bite of an onion before they can eat their gelt, to like even it out.”
I decided it would be interesting to see if I could collect religious folklore from someone not particularly religious, so this tradition/ritual comes from teenaged girl, who is ethnically Jewish, but neither practicing nor bat mitzvahed. I simply asked her to explain different components of how she celebrates Chanukah. This specific ritual practice puts a personal, non-institutional twist on something essential to the celebration of the holiday, the game of dreidel, which although is not mandated by the religion, is quite widespread amongst Jews. The onion is way of inserting personal significance, into a traditional ritual which would otherwise hold little meaning for my informant. It is also a way to remember a story—which happened so long ago in her childhood that the details are surely blurred—that has become almost a family legend.