Ever wonder what starts a tale spinning?

The Mexican Dreidel story is, so to speak, a spin-off from a course on the History of Latin American Jewry. That course was taught by Amherst College Professor Ilan Stavans, a Mexican Jew. 

I signed up. Immediately. I’d long been fascinated with the history of Latin American Jewry (partly because a dear friend and the inspiration/raison d’être for my story, Rainbow Weaver, is a Guatemalan Jew). My husband, too, signed up. After all, you never know what you’ll learn, who you’ll meet, and if taking a course might lead to writing a story, or even to taking a trip.   

Ilan taught us that, in 1492, the Spanish kingdom–after embracing Christianity and taking over the Iberian peninsula from Muslims who had settled there–forced the entire Jewish community, which had lived there since the days of the Roman Empire, to leave. Jews scattered. Some to Turkey, others to the former Yugoslavia, Egypt, Morocco, Algiers, Syria, Lebanon, the Netherlands, the Middle East, and Latin America. Some stayed Jewish; some did not. Crypto-Jews, i.e., Jews who pretended to be Catholic, also fled. Some returned to Judaism, others did not.  

A “second wave” of Jews–Yiddish speakers from the Pale of Settlement–came to Latin America, mostly to Argentina, from 1880-1930. Many had assistance from Baron de Hirsch, who helped establish agricultural settlements. Members of my family and of my husband’s, aided by Baron de Hirsch, came, too. In the 30s and 40s, Holocaust refugees and survivors found homes in Latin America. As did a wave of Israelis, starting in 1970.  

As Ilan taught, I wondered if he had stories from Mexico? For children? During a break, I shared that I write for children…and am always looking for story ideas. He chuckled and said that, in fact, he did have an idea.   

The following week we met for coffee and he shared his idea: What if a Jewish child, visiting a grandparent around Christmas or Janucá, wanted a trompo–a Mexican spinning top–but instead got a dreidel so magical that it would spin and spin and the fallen trompos would follow it? Could that be a story?  Sounds fun, I answered. I got to work. I created some characters, gave the story more plot, and wrote it as a picture book (a feat much easier said than done).   

Almost four years later, thanks to Kar-Ben and Maria Mola’s beautiful illustrations, The Mexican Dreidel is, at last, spinning through the world. And as it spins, it’s helping fallen trompos get up and spin again and it’s helping kids make new friends. 

Spin on, little dreidel, spin on!