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Playing with Nickels

Zeidy extracts several colored dreidels and everyone scrambles into place

The bank teller looks up through the glass, motioning with her chin to the next customer in line. A couple, looking to be in their late 80s, makes their way to the counter.

Their distinguished air is not lost on the young teller, who, feeling rather casual in the face of the Burberry-clad gentleman with the charcoal fedora and his lovely wife, self-consciously smoothes her blouse.

“May I help you?” she asks.

“Yes,” smiles the lady, placing two $10 bills on the counter. “I’d like 400 nickels, please.”

The teller’s eyebrows rise momentarily in surprise. The older woman’s face is sincere, however, so the teller proceeds to execute the task.

Handing the couple the neat rolls of nickels, she cannot restrain herself.

“Excuse me—” She hesitates for a moment, then forges ahead. “May I ask — what do you do with so many nickels?”

The older woman’s face remains deadpan as she looks at the teller evenly. “Oh… we play with them! Have a nice day.”

They make their way toward the exit, but not before taking in the priceless look of bewilderment on the teller’s face.


Repeating this story the following week at Aunt Hinda’s Chanukah party, Bubby laughs until she cries, and we follow suit.

We sit overlooking the open foyer below, where Zeidy is seated on a throne (well, a plush chair, but it looks like a throne when he sits on it) surrounded by children, nickels, and flying dreidels.

The years have come and gone with the family party taking on new dimensions along the way. Gone are the small, intimate affairs of my youth, the three aunts and Bubby coming with a gift for every child, and Zeidy sitting cross-legged on the floor with us kids. Now furniture gets moved to accommodate the growing circle, the $15 in quarters has morphed into $20 in nickels, menus are actually planned rather than potlucked, and there is more noise than a chicken farm.

When I was a girl, the three families sat together eating and schmoozing. Then the kids would run off to play, leaving the adults to their coffee, peace, and quiet.

Now, the tables are set in the dining room with overflow in the kitchen; the second cousins eye each other shyly as their mothers coax, “Look! You remember Shlomo! He was here last year too!”

Once upon a time everyone piled into station wagons, arriving within the hour; now there’s more shuffling: one cousin has another family obligation at this hour in a different city, another is giving a chaburah an hour’s drive away, and a third is studying for the Bar.

Two pans of lasagna and some bagels no longer suffice; a Google spreadsheet circulates a month in advance for everyone to write their contribution. (A great chance for us cousins — who rarely see each other — to remember how much fun we have together. Like the year the easiest pasta dishes were snatched up within the first two hours and one cheeky cousin entered “Pastrami-chunk salad.” Frantic calls ensued: “Didn’t she see that it’s milchigs? Isn’t it every year?”)

We used to have two circles; the boys playing one game and the girls another… these days there are kids in the kitchen, kids in the living room, kids doing Step-It-Up, and kids playing knock-hockey; those playing in the basement, those schmoozing in the living room, and those who won’t leave their mothers’ sides.

And then the singular pronouncement: “Dreeeeeiiidel!”

The house erupts. The scraping of chairs, pitter-patter of feet, whoops and war cries coming from deep within the hallways of the house as great-grandchildren converge upon the foyer. Zeidy extracts several colored dreidels (although a few boys brought their own wooden ones hoping for a lucky spin) and everyone scrambles into place. The throne is brought over for Zeidy, while his ben bechor — himself a great-grandfather — sits cross-legged on the parquet floor next to his siblings’ grandchildren.

Zeidy jokes that he bought himself a dreidel with gimmels on all four sides. He gives me a sidelong glance and quips that there’s one for me with four nuns. The spinning commences amid cheers and groans and shouts and the occasional breath-holding silence of anticipation. Nickels are flying as little voices yell, “Zeidy, Zeidy, watch this! I’m gonna spin mine upside down!”

This is what we look forward to all year.

Bubby hopes aloud that she brought enough nickels and shares with us the story of the confused bank teller. “She looked at me like I was a crazy old lady!” She plotzes, as we all laugh along at her reenactment. “Playing with nickels!”

Playing with nickels indeed.


(Originally featured in Family Feature, Issue 470)

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