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The Percelay Museum of Temple Emanu-El, established in the early 1950s at the behest of Rabbi Eli A. Bohnen, z’’l, with the support of Emanu-El member Natalie Percelay, z’’l, houses a treasure trove of Jewish ritual objects.

A museum is not simply a venue to display interesting or visually pleasing objects. Ritual objects and artwork tell us about our history, our people, our collective past, dor l’dor. The synagogue is a Beit Knesset, a house of assembly; a Beit Midrash, a house of study; and a Beit T’fillah, a house of prayer. Our museum is a vital part in helping our synagogue to bring these visions into reality. In addition, the concept of hiddur mitzvah, “to glorify the mitzvah,” is achieved by enabling us to use the objects in the museum to “beautify the commandment,” and thus enhances our performance of the mitzvah. As a communal resource, our synagogue uses many of these ritual objects in our Jewish daily, monthly or annual observances, and in rituals of the Jewish life cycle. Contemporary, as well as more traditional examples of Judaica are scattered throughout the synagogue, as well as within the four walls of our museum. The Percelay Museum is a living entity, and its precious holdings are not mere artifacts, but vital, vibrant reminders of what was then, what is now, and what can be—as we grow from strength to strength. To schedule a visit to this jewel in Temple Emanu-El’s crown, contact the Museum Director at:


Museum Musings
December 2023

Contemporary wooden folk-art dreidel. Artist: L. Bibel


A Hannukah Quiz: What do the Red Sox,The Patriots and the Maccabees Have in Common?

How can I write about the winter festival of Hanukkah for the December Temple Emanu-El website on a balmy Fall day, when the Sox and the Patriots are hoping for some great victories?  Good luck, All!   

Sports and Hannukah? Well, it's actually not such a stretch. Are not the Israeli Olympics, known as the Maccabiah, named for the Maccabees, the heroes of the Hanukkah story?

Hanukkah, celebrated for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev, (this year beginning on the evening of December 7th,) commemorates the historic victory of the Syrians over the tyrant Antiochus and his army. Also called the "Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the tiny cruse of oil which lasted for eight days. Most importantly, Hanukkah, which means "dedication," notes the restoration of the Temple from paganism and Hellenism to Jewish life.

Today, in Israel, Hanukkah symbolizes national liberation and the triumph of the Jewish spirit. It is in this final interpretation that the essence of the Maccabiah games is defined. Ironically, the original Maccabees rejected the temptation of the Jews to participate in the Greek Olympics, as they were deemed too pagan and denigrated non-Greek speaking people. Yet when the modern Olympics were reinstated, "contemporary Maccabees," the modern Zionists, embraced Jewish sports as integral to their national revival. In this ideological spirit as well as in a pragmatic reality, the Israeli parallel to The Olympics, called the Maccabiah, was created.

The ancient Olympics, held in Olympia, Greece from 776 BCE - 395 CE, involved the worship of Zeus, Heracles and also Antiochus, who saw himself as an expression of the sun god. Jews who wanted to compete in this competition which was designated to turn the elite of various ethnic groups ruled by the Greek kings into soldiers and citizens devoted to mind and body, had to go through an extraordinary process to be able to compete. 

The modern Olympics were revived by the King of Greece in 1896. The modern Maccabiah was encouraged by Israeli Joseph Yukutiel who persuaded the then mayor of Tel Aviv, Meyer Dizengoff, to build Israel's first sports stadium, and then convinced the Zionist Maccabee Sports Clubs from around the world to come to Eretz Yisrael to hold the first Jewish Olympics in 1932. Five hundred participants from twenty-three countries came in 1932;  and  then, 1700 participated in the Maccabiah in 1935, at a time when Jews were excluded from the Olympics, held in Nazi Germany in Berlin 1936.

To this day, the Maccabiah games are held, quadrennially in Israel. Jews from more than 70 countries throughout the world will participate.  In past years, several Rhode Islanders have participated.  In the summer of 2025, almost 1000 Jewish American athletes are expected to compete out of a total of 10,000 participants.

There are other games, less physically challenging that are associated with Hanukkah. The dreidel, or sivivon, is perhaps the most famous. Over the centuries, the rabbis have tried to find the connection between the dreidel and Hannukah. The standard explanation is that the letters: Nun, Gimel, Heh and Shin (Nes gadol hayah sham) stand for "A great miracle happened there." In Israel the dreidel's letters are Nun, Gimel, Heh and Peh, (Nes gadol hayah po) "A great Miracle happened here.”  Other explanations used gammatria, an elaborate game of word play using letters and numbers. One example shows that the numerical equivalent of Nes gadol hayah sham = Messiah. A 19th century rabbi maintained that dreidel game was invented in order to fool the Greeks in case they, the Jews, were caught studying Torah, which had been outlawed. With the dreidel, they could insist they were sitting together playing a harmless, albeit "gambling" game. 

In fact, all of these explanations were invented after the fact, for in England, in the 16th century there was a game, popular at Christmastime, called totum, which in Latin, means "all." Finally, this game was transported to Eastern Europe and Germany, and the Latin letters were transposed to Yiddish and German. The Eastern European dreidel game that we play today is based on the German version: N,G,H,S.... N = Nicht-nothing; G = gantz-all; H = halb-half; and S = stell ein-put in. And so, the dreidel game represents an irony of Jewish history. 

In order to celebrate the holiday of Hannukah, which celebrates our victory over cultural assimilation, we play a dreidel game, which is a splendid example of cultural assimilation. In yet a similar and divergent twist, the Maccabiah games were created to enhance Jewish pride by providing opportunities for Jews to prove themselves as athletes in the world's arena...and to acculturate without assimilating. Two games of sport. Two aspects of endurance. Two ways of creating new traditions.

May this Hannukah  remind us, once again, that the Maccabees of old are reborn in the modern-day citizens of Israel, who like their ancestors, symbolize national liberation and the triumph of the Jewish spirit.

Hag Hanukkah Sameah!

The Abraham and Natalie Percelay Museum of Temple Emanu-El has several examples of contemporary dreidels. Pictured above is a wooden folk-art dreidel, hand-carved by L. Bibel. The Shin,  standing for "sham" = “there,” indicates it was created outside of Israel.

Some material in this piece was culled from an article by Noam Zion and Barbara Spectre.

--Ruth Page, Museum Director


Contributions to the museum are a special way to remember those you wish to honor on memorialize. Send your donations to the synagogue, Attention: Museum


Past Musings:

Fri, February 23 2024 14 Adar I 5784