Maybe you have memories of taking your turn in a classroom spelling bee. Chances are, the word that got you eliminated was something really hard like “receive.” (The old “i before e except after c” rule gets them every time!)
If you’re alphabetically talented enough to make it to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, you probably know that you’ll encounter a lot of foreign words. In 2018, 13-year-old Shiva Yeshlur from Wyoming was asked to spell the word cholent. He asked for its meaning: “A Jewish Sabbath-day dish of slow-baked meat and vegetables,” the judge told him. He then asked for the word’s language of origin, because for master spellers, this can reveal important clues. The word is Yiddish, he was told. He spelled it correctly and moved on to the next round. Pretty impressive for a kid who has probably never eaten cholent!
We like spelling bees. After all, we wrote a dictionary! And we like Yiddish words.
But using them in a spelling bee is mishegoss (Yiddish for crazy) because there’s no single correct way to spell a word that didn’t start out as English. The process of changing letters from one language into similar-sounding characters of another language is called transliteration – and it’s not an exact science.
This doesn’t stop the spelling bee mavens from throwing foreign words into the mix. While the large majority of words come from Latin, Middle English and French, the organizers have been known to turn to words in Hindi and Afrikaans – as well as Yiddish and Hebrew – to challenge the smarty-pants contestants. Click here to see a chart of where spelling bee words come from.
Think about the latke-filled, eight-day Jewish holiday that usually falls in December. Do you spell it Hanukah or Chanukah or Hanukkah? How do you spell the four-sided top you spin with the kids? Is that a dreidel, draydle, draidel, or what? Both the holiday and the top are Hebrew words spelled with Hebrew letters. When you sound them out and transliterate them – spell them with As, Bs and Cs – there are several different ways to do it.
So how can the big machers at Scripps declare that a kid spelled a Yiddish word “correctly?”
This issue came to a head in 2013, when a 13-year-old boy of Indian heritage named Arvind Mahankali, who hailed from Queens, New York, won the national title by correctly spelling the Yiddish word for matzah ball. He spelled it k-n-a-i-d-e-l. See his win on YouTube.
That’s how we chose to spell it in our Dictionary of Jewish Words, and how the Spelling Bee thought it should be spelled. Their spelling bible is Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, which has some 472,000 words – including many that are transliterated from foreign languages.
But no big win is without controversy. The scholars at the acclaimed YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which considers itself the authority on the standardized spelling of Yiddish words, declared that the correct spelling of the fluffy soup dumpling should be kneydl.
Time magazine thought the debate was worth investigating. They surveyed the use of the word and found that the “knaidel” version was the overwhelming winner – thanks to many mentions of matzah ball soup in American-Jewish cookbooks from the 1950s.
Our favorite Yiddish-in-the-Spelling-Bee story is this one: In 2009, the participants
were asked to spell kichel – those puffy little cookies made with eggs and sugar. We call them bow ties, and we love them. When asked to use the word in a sentence, the spelling bee moderator said, “The thought of someone kvetching about her kichel gave Meryl the shpilkes.”
Isn’t that ridiculous? The sentence is supposed to give the contestant a clue to the word’s meaning. If you were a kid whose family was from India, would you know kvetch, shpilkes and kichel? You would more likely know the Hindu counterparts: Kvetch (to complain) is shikaayat. Shpilkes (impatience) is adheerata and kichel is cheenee kukee. At least that’s what Google Translate told us.
If the moderator truly wanted to be helpful – or even just be nice – he should have said, “The thought of someone shikaayat about her cheenee kukee gave Prianca adheerata.” Now that’s a sentence the Indian contestants could relate to!
But these kids don’t seem to need a helping hand. In fact, Indian-Americans have won the last 11 national spelling bees!
In the ultimate round of the bee in 2016, the co-champion, Jairam Hathwar, a 13-year-old from Corning, New York, was asked to spell chremslach, the Yiddish word for matzah meal pancakes – and he spelled it correctly! It’s a really old-fashioned word that even our Jewish kids don’t know. We just don’t use the word chremslach. When it’s Hanukkah we make our pancakes out of shredded potatoes and call them latkes. When it’s Passover, we use matzah meal and call them pesachdik pancakes.
Next Passover, maybe we should open the door to some of these teenage contestants and invite them to join in our seder so they can see the Yiddish words in action. And then they will surely know how to spell machetunim, kugel and khreyn.