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June 7, 2013 7:54 am 12 comments

Kneidels. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Last week a young Indian boy living in New York won the National Spelling Bee, the annual spelling championship. The winning spelling was KNAIDEL, that Yiddish description of a mixture of matzo meal, egg, fat, and spices we usually put in our chicken soup. Incidentally, I cannot imagine any spelling competition in Europe that would include a Yiddish word. Almost immediately the New York press was afire with controversy. How can you say there is only one spelling? Had he suggested KNEYDLE would he have been wrong? After all, that’s how Max Weinreich’s authoritative “History of the Yiddish Language” spells it!

The derivation of this Yiddish word is from the German KNOEDEL, a kind of dumpling. The fact that Eastern European Jews spoke Yiddish, a language that derived from German rather than from a Caucasian dialect, knocks into oblivion the infantile theory, first proposed by Arthur Koestler, that Ashkenazi Jews (Zionists) really descended from non-Jewish Khazars. It suits anti-Israelis to pretend there never was a link between Jews today and the Land of Israel. Every clever mind has an Achilles heel.

But Yiddish is a strange language that was and is pronounced differently across the geographical and sectarian divide. There is an old joke about how it is possible to write Noah (in Hebrew) making seven mistakes when it was spelt with only two letters in the Torah. But take Moses’s name. It is spelled and pronounced Moshe, Moishe, Mowshe, Moyshe, and Maishe in different communities. What I know as a Kneydel is pronounced in the Jewish world as Keneydel, Kneydl, Knoedel, Kniydl, and Kenedel. Yiddish was spoken in a sort of European dog dialect but usually written in Hebrew characters and how it was transcribed varied from local to locale. Who on earth has any authority to say one spelling or pronunciation is right and the other is wrong? OK, so the French have a centralized Academie francaise, which decides to the letter what is correct and what is not, and that probably explains why France is such a mess and most of us would only live there if we had no alternative.

As for transliteration, that surely cannot be determined in terms of right or wrong; only whatever convention the publisher, institution, or person chooses to follow. I have in the past month been invited to contribute essays to three different institutional publications and each one sent me a sheet giving the required translations, transliterations, and styles IT requires, and they all differ.

Take the Hebrew word for a wise man. A Sephardi will call him a Haham (and by the way why PH instead of F in Sefardi, for goodness sakes). Others, mainly academic, will prefer an H with a dot underneath. I prefer CH and others insist on K with or without a dot. I have often used an H without a dot. Sometimes it simply depends on what side of the bed I wake up on. And how do you spell and write Chanukah? Hanukkah, Hannuka, Hanuka, Chanooka, Chanuka or Chanukah? When do you decide there will be an H at the end of Hebrew word? Only when there’s a final Hey, Hay, Hei, or He?

Neither can we agree about the word or the spelling for what men put on their heads. Is it a Capel (or cuppel or cupel or kapel or kappell), a Kippa (or Kipa or cipah), let alone yarmulker, yahmulkah, or perhaps a toupee. Can only one be right?

Translation is subjective. What, then, of pronunciation, spelling, and transliteration? Can there only be one correct? Of course not. That would be arrogant, inconsistent, unfair, and dishonest. We are corrupting the minds and values of innocent young spelling champions, imposing our subjective and arbitrary decisions on them as a matter of life or death, or financial reward.

But, you see, that’s one of the curses of our era. We want to know exactly how a word is spelled (or spelt), pronounced and written. We want to know exactly what it means, even if by now we have all heard Wittgenstein’s aphorism that “the meaning of a word is its use.” We want everything prepackaged, predigested, pre-decided, in black and white, with no room for variety, variation, or inconsistency. In fact, real humans are not like that. And if young Arvind Mahankali (the winner) wants to be a great scientist as he says, he’d better get out of the habit of accepting arbitrary conventions.

And that’s my gripe with Judaism nowadays. People are too busy defining! Are you Reform? Conservative? Reconstructionist? New Age? Modern Orthodox? Orthodox? Ultra-Orthodox? Yeshivish? Chasidic (one or two S’s?), Charedi (Haredi)? And are you Ashkenazi, Yekke, Pollack, Litvak, Hungarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, or White Russian? Are you Moroccan, Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, or Persian? And I can tell you the difference between a how a Jew from Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, and London pronounces his Hebrew and thinks he’s better for it, is nothing to the differences between a Mashadi, a Kashani, an Esfahandi, and a Teherani!

Do you “keep” Glatt, Gebroicks, Cholov Yisroel (Yisroel, Yisrael, Israel)? Are you Shomer Negia, Shomer Shabbes, or Shomer fiddle your neighbor? And now in Golders Green we have another one called “Shomer interfere with someone else’s wife.” But for that you need a full beard.

Or take me, an English Ashkenazi Mitnaged. Now rav, rabbi, or Rah Bi (yes, I do know what the late Rav Moshe Feinstein intended by that usage) of an American Nusach (Nusah) Sefardi (no, not Nusach Sfard) Persian shtible or Shtiebel or Shtibel. Either way, it’s the wrong word.

Gosh, we take ourselves so seriously. Where’s the humor? Where’s the variety, and why, for goodness’ sake, can’t we embrace differences and love them, instead of using them to discriminate, humiliate, and to fight about, let alone to prize young love apart? So don’t tell me how to spell, or pronunciate, and above all don’t tell me that your customs or nuances or idiosyncrasies are essential to being a good Jew or anything else. I am me. Accept it? Fine. Don’t? Too bad.


  • As my ashkenazi neighbor might say, why make a tsimmes over a knaidel?

  • Very good point about Yiddish being a German-Hebrew language not a central Asian one.

  • Please read also a different take on the original New York Times article on Knaidel before self congratulating on cleverness-in-truth of your posting.

    “Knaidel is now the symbol of a diversified but united American Nation – this when the Matzo-Ball in a Jewish-American Soup entered the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and is correctly recognized by the son of Indian-American immigrants.”
    Sunday, June 2nd, 2013 on

    Envy America (you might spell Amerika) for the good of Israel.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Really? Well I would never write Matzo I dont care for whom. It is Matza or perhaps to take note of the final “Hey” in Hebrew- matzah. I have no doubt that Indian Americans also have issues with the way European Imperialists spelt and spell their language too!

  • Ralph Levitt

    Refer to———Paul Wexler, The Ashkenazic Jews:
    A Slavo-Turkic People In Search Of A Jewish Identity.
    Professor Wexler is a linguist at Tel Aviv University.

  • Ralph Levitt

    The Khazars spoke a Turkic language and not a Caucasian
    one, such as Georgian and others.
    People adopt new languages. The Jews switched to Aramaic
    from Hebrew. The Tutsi adopted a Bantu tongue which was
    not what they originally spoke. This goes on and on.
    As for the Ashkenazi Jews, there is an acceptance that there was at least some Khazar input. The question is—-
    how much.
    Paul Wechsler argues that Yiddish is derived from a Slavic
    dialect, Sorbian (not Serbian).
    Arthur Koestler may have gone too far but his view is by no
    means absurd.

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Sure there were other people mixed in with the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe; Kaarites for one in Lithuania who asked Hitler to de-list them as Jews and Sephardi communities and Sabbateans. That’s not the point. Neither is the totally unprovable theory that there were former Khazars. Give me one example of a loan word in Yiddish. The point is whether they could have constituted a majority.

      The cockamamy theory about the 13th Tribe is of interest only to anti Zionists or anyone who has a motive for trying to claim the Jews today have no historical link with the Land of Israel ( regardless of whether they are palestinian, Professors in Tel Aviv or White Supremacists in Texas ).


  • Brilliant! (Bril-yant, bril-yent, brill-i-ant)

    • Jeremy Rosen

      Thank you Sir
      What a nice way to send me into Shabbat.

      • Douglas Banin

        Really Jeremy!

        I remember that Mr.Warner (English Teacher at Carmel, 1950s, Chess buff)used to say that the use of the world “nice” was inelegant. Have you forgotten already?

        Shabat Shalom,

        Douglas Banin.

        • Jeremy Rosen

          What a surprise to find you “here” !
          Of course I remember Warner, well over six feet, went off to teach in Abyssinia as it was and then retired to Ireland. He never taught me ( that I can recall). But we used to say that to call someone nice was a bland and not very positive compliment and I certainly know that ‘Nice’ in Shakespeare means a fool !!!!!
          Warmest regards

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