Interestingly, the explanations provided by My Friend the Internet are astoundingly boring.
Therefore, I have done my own unique and independent scientific research (by which I mean I made it up out of thin air and a desire to have something to publish) as to the origins of the game.
It turns out that dreidel was invented by a very nice lady by the name of Leah Zimmerman. (You thought I was going to say Mrs. Joe Neanderthal? Don’t be silly.)
Leah was a very nice lady who regularly cooked latkes for her family during Hanukkah. But Leah had a problem. Leah lived in Once Upon a Time time. And everyone knows that Way Back Then there weren’t freezers. Which meant that you couldn’t cook latkes ahead of time and freeze them. You had to cook them right before you wanted to eat them.
The thing about cooking latkes is that they take A Long Time To Cook. No matter how you fry them, it takes a while to convince potatoes not to be raw. Potatoes are stubborn; that’s just the way it is.
And the thing about the people waiting to eat the latkes is that they are hungry. Not just your average, ordinary hungry, but starving-to-death-and-I-can-smell-latkes-cooking hungry. Which of course means hungry and whiny.
You think “Are we there yet?” can get annoying? It’s nothing compared to “Are they ready yet? How about now? Now? Ok, How about now?”
Leah Zimmerman was a very good cook, and she was a woman who knew perfectly well that latkes simply can’t be rushed. They will be ready when they are ready and not a moment sooner.
She was also a smart lady who prepared for the long wait by have a list of Things for her children To Do while they waited for dinner.
But Leah Zimmerman made a mistake.
She did not account for her children becoming more efficient at task completion as they got older. And unfortunately, while they got faster at completing chores, they did not become correspondingly more patient about waiting to be fed.
So Leah’s children ran out of Things To Do While Waiting. They decided to bother their mother. She decided she had no interest in being bothered. “Go play,” said Leah to her children.
For a brief moment there was silence as the children considered and then rejected this invitation. “What are we supposed to play?” they asked.
For a brief moment there was silence as Leah considered this question and her children stared expectantly at her. “Go play Dreidel,” said Leah.
“What is Dreidel?” the children asked since dreidel hadn’t been invented yet.
“Come, I will show you,” said Leah, giving the latkes a meaningful look (the meaning was “you’d best keep cooking nicely without burning while I attend to these children”).
The first game of dreidel involved lots of complicated rules that Leah made up as she went along. But a tradition was born.
And the latkes were smart enough not to burn.
Now you know.