The Chutzpah Bee

05.31.13

Mazel Tov, Arvind! But Are You Sure It’s Not Kneydl?

Arvind Mahankali won this year’s national spelling bee when he got ‘knaidel’ right. But, asks Daniel Gross, isn’t it a little meshugge to say there’s a right way to spell a Yiddish word?

Well ain’t that America? We make a competition out of spelling, televised and hyped by ESPN. And it’s won by an Indian-American kid from Queens who accurately spelled a Yiddish word for dumpling: knaidel.

Mazal tov! Or is it mazel tov? On the other hand, oy vey! The idea of a competition in which exactitude and standards are paramount being decided by a Yiddish word is a little ferkakte.

The Faces of the National Spelling Bee
Cliff Owen/AP

Why? Consider that words from Latin or Greek entered the English vernacular and written languages centuries ago, and so there has been plenty of time to iron out standards. Nobody will argue about the proper English spelling of amorous, from the Latin root amor.

By contrast, Anglophones have been using words like schmuck, putz, mamzer, and gonif for only a century or so. It was only when large numbers of Yiddish-speaking Jews made their way to New York and London in the late-19th and early-20th centuries that English (or more appropriately, American English) began to assimilate these words. What’s more, Yiddish was written in Hebrew characters, not the Latin alphabet. So every use of a Yiddish word is both a translation from an entirely different alphabet and a transliteration on top of that—and of relatively recent vintage. 

In addition, just as Judaism lacked a central authority and hierarchy to promulgate standards of religious observance and practice, Yiddish lacked a central authority and hierarchy to promulgate standards of English spelling. What, you think Yiddish speakers from Minsk would accept the rendering of a word into English that Yiddish speakers from Krakow would offer? Such chutzpah. You say shvantz, I say shwantz.

In the post-Holocaust years, as Yiddish has moved largely from a spoken language to a studied language, there have been efforts to standardize spellings, vocabulary, and grammar. But the Hasidic communities that doggedly stick to a living, breathing Yiddish use different dialects. Many of them eschew English altogether. And since they can’t agree on which Rebbe is the ultimate font of Torah wisdom, it’s hardly likely they’d agree on a standard spelling for translated Yiddish words.

Which is why competition organizers should have thought twice about using Yiddish-derived words into high-stakes spelling competitions. Do you call an ineffectual, hapless person a schlemiel, a shlemel, a shlemyel, or a schlemeyel? Is that mass of cream cheese you put on a bagel a schemer or a shmeer? Is a thief a gonif, a goniff, or a ganif? How about that thing Jews like to spin on Hanukkah (or Chanukkah or Chanukah)? It could be a draidel, a draidle, a dreidel, or a draydl.

If you asked a bunch of Yiddish speakers how to spell the word that Arvind Mahankali successfully spelled, it’s highly likely many would have said kneidel, or kneydl, or knaydl. And the plural could be knaidels, or knaidelach, or knaidlach, or knaideluch. “In America,” one could imagine a character in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story saying, “They have to take spelling lessons in Yiddish from the goyim.”