When Leslie Raynsford was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s in West Orange, N.J., the community was half-Jewish, half-Italian.
“Every other person on my court — there was the Vicedominis and then the Weissmans and then the Perantis. It was Jewish/Italian/Jewish/Italian,” said Raynsford, who is Jewish.
So around the holiday season, Raynsford would see the Christmas trees with ornaments and wonder how she could collect similar decorations as a Jew. She later married someone who wasn’t Jewish and had ornaments that date back to at least his grandparents.
“Growing up Jewish, you don’t get a collection — maybe you can pass down a seder plate,” said Raynsford, a member of Central Reform Congregation. “I always thought dreidels were what we could do to collect — they could be part of our tradition.”
So about 20 years ago, Raynsford started looking for the four-sided spinning tops; she now has more than 200 of various designs, sizes, materials and shapes.
“First of all, it’s a game, so as a kid, you liked playing that game…It was colorful, it was fun — there was the feeling of having a tradition,” said Raynsford, 64.
In trying to find a Jewish collectible similar to Christmas ornaments, Raynsford in fact reached for a game that also started outside the Jewish tradition. According to “A Different Light: The Hanukkah Book of Celebration,” the “Eastern European game of dreidl is directly based on the German equivalent of the game… In German, the spinning top was called a ‘torrel’ or ‘trundl,’ and in Yiddish, it was called a ‘dreidl’… Thus the dreidl game represents an irony of Jewish history. In order to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play the dreidl game, which is an excellent example of cultural assimilation!”
A lifelong artist, Raynsford studied metalsmithing at Washington University and has created sculptural jewelry, among other work. Her parents gave her a crystal dreidel for Hanukkah a few decades ago, which served as the starting point for her collection.
By shopping online at eBay, Etsy and Judaica sites, she found dreidels in bright colors and ones that were “beautiful glasswork” not really meant to be spun, she said. About 80 percent of the tops are playable. Many of them were created by Israeli artists.
She once saw an elaborate dreidel collection and was impressed but realized all the items were very expensive. So she set a limit of $50 per dreidel, though she has “strayed from that a couple times — but not many,” she said.
She tries to add unique dreidels to her collection each year and starts looking shortly before Hanukkah.
She has glass dreidels designed by Gary Rosenthal, a Judaica artist who designed a menorah that was presented to President Bill Clinton while he was in the White House.
After traveling to Oregon and seeing all the art there using a starfish motif, she sought— and found — a dreidel designed to look like one. She has ones that look like lighthouses. She has one made from cactus. And one crocheted in metal “that is not as fragile as it looks,” she said. And thin glass dreidels that she needs to be more careful with. And one made from paper featuring an intricate design cut with an X-ACTO knife. And she has ones that are like Russian nesting dolls, where one fits inside the next.
She also has a large one made from paper and foam that she spotted on stage at the New Jewish Theatre. In 2013, Raynsford and her parents went to see “Shlemiel the First,” a musical comedy adapted from stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer about supposedly wise men and a well-meaning fool. In the piece, Shlemiel carries around a dreidel adorned with a radish.
“I said, ‘I gotta have that,’” said Raynsford, who keeps the collection at her home in Ladue. She reached out to the folks at NJT and asked whether they would give her the dreidel at the end of the run in exchange for a donation.
“I was so happy when they agreed,” she said.
Despite her wide array of dreidels, Raynsford continues to collect. But she says there is one missing piece. She has never created a dreidel.
She isn’t sure why but says she needs “to remedy that.”
And in the process, she will be able to add to her collection without sacrificing too much gelt.