KNAIDEL

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.

12 Comments

  • 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 http://www.SustainabiliTank.info

    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!
      Jeremy

  • 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 ).

      Jeremy

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

    • Jeremy Rosen

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

      • 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
          Jeremy

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Jewish Identity Sports Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    Cycling the Desert: New Israel Bike Trail Connects Mitzpe Ramon to Eilat

    As the popularity of cycling continues to increase across the world, Israel is working to develop cycling trails that make the country’s spectacular desert accessible to cyclists. The southern segment of the Israel Bike Trail was inaugurated on Feb. 24 and offers for the first time a unique, uninterrupted 8-day cycling experience after six years of planning and development. The southern section of the Israel Bike Trail stretches over 300 kilometers in length and is divided into eight segments for mountain biking, [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Theater Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    Forthcoming Major Action Movies Inspired by Jewish Comic Artist Jack Kirby

    JNS.org – With the recent Oscars in the rearview mirror, Hollywood’s attention now shifts to the rest of this year’s big-screen lineup. Two of the major action films coming up in 2015—Avengers: Age of Ultron, which hits theaters in May, and the third film in the Fantastic Four series, slated for an August release—have Jewish roots that the average moviegoer might be unaware of. As it turns out, it took a tough Jewish kid from New York City’s Lower East [...]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Jewish Identity When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    When Torah Teaches Life and Life Teaches Torah (REVIEW)

    JNS.org – Rabbi Gordon Tucker spent the first 20 years of his career teaching at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and the next 20 years as the rabbi of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. I confess that when I heard about the order of those events, I thought that Tucker’s move from academia to the pulpit was strange. Firstly, I could not imagine anyone filling the place of my friend, Arnold Turetsky, who was such a talented [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Blogs Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    Oscars 2015: Reflecting on Love at First Sight

    JNS.org – I’m in love, and have been for a long time. It’s a relationship filled with laughter, tears, intrigue, and surprise. It was love at first sight, back when I was a little girl—with an extra-terrestrial that longed to go home. From then on, that love has never wavered, and isn’t reserved for one, but for oh so many—Ferris Bueller, Annie Hall, Tootsie, Harry and Sally, Marty McFly, Atticus Finch, Danny Zuko, Yentl, that little dog Toto, Mrs. Doubtfire, [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Book Reviews Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    Examining America’s First Foray into the Middle East (REVIEW)

    At the turn of the 21st century through today, American involvement in Middle Eastern politics runs through the Central Intelligence Agency. In America’s Great Game: The CIA’s Secret Arabists and the Shaping of the Modern Middle East, historian Hugh Wilford shows this has always been the case. Wilford methodically traces the lives and work of the agency’s three most prominent officers in the Middle East: Kermit “Kim” Roosevelt was the grandson of president Theodore Roosevelt, and the first head of [...]

    Read more →
  • Relationships US & Canada Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Seniors at Los Angeles Jewish Home Give Witty Dating Advice Ahead of Valentine’s Day (VIDEO)

    Residents of the Los Angeles Jewish Home give dating advice to a young Jewish man in a comedic video posted Monday on YouTube just in time for Valentine’s Day. Jonathan, an associate at the Jewish home, quizzes the senior citizens on an array of topics including having sex on the first date, kissing a girl, who should pay for dinner and whether online dating is a good idea. When the 28-year-old asks a male resident named Lee about his experiences [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish History Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Kutsher’s Documentary an Amazing, and Tragic, Look at the Past (REVIEW)

    Anyone who spent time in the Jewish Catskills hotels – especially those like me, who returned for decades – must see the new documentary,”Welcome to Kutsher’s: The Last Catskills Resort.” Not only will the film transport you back to the glory days of your youth and thousands of memories, but it will also make you long for a world that is now lost forever. I returned to Kutsher’s one last time in the summer of 2009, but by then, the [...]

    Read more →
  • Education Jewish Identity Lifestyle Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    Riding the Wave of Change in Part-Time Jewish Education

    JNS.org – Amid the numerous studies and analyses regarding Jewish American life, a simple fact remains: part-time Jewish education is the most popular vehicle for Jewish education in North America. Whenever and wherever parents choose Jewish education for their children, we have a communal responsibility to devote the necessary time and resources to deliver dynamic, effective learning experiences. The only way we can do this is by creating space for conversations and knowledge-sharing around innovative new education models. That also [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.