Some Things Just Don’t Translate:  Jewdle Makes Us Farmisht

We love Wordle for lots of reasons. Unlike other online time wasters, Wordle gives us just one chance a day to play. We can’t fool around with our guesses endlessly, play multiple games or chat with strangers. We can’t waste hours and hours annoying our spouse with our inattention to anything else because we’re staring at our phone (cough Words With Friends cough). Wordle doesn’t measure our steps or evaluate our sleep. It doesn’t suggest other games  we might like. It doesn’t ask us to reveal our email, our birthday, or sign in with a credit card!

Wordle makes us feel smart when we get the daily word in three guesses. It strengthens family connections: Ellen’s family has a daily Wordle group text where everyone posts their scores. Throughout the day, they keep the group text going, shmoozing about work, friends and what they’re watching on TV. For her, it’s a chance to chat and connect with the kids – who cares about the word game!

Joyce and her husband pool their brainpower and play Wordle together each day. It’s spousal bonding time when they guess the daily word together.

So when we read about a new Jewish-themed offshoot called Jewdle, created by Alon Meltzer, head of a Jewish organization in Australia, we couldn’t wait to check it out. We were delighted that there was a Jewish version of Wordle. After all, we like to see the Tribe represented – in movies, on TV, in Congress and in games.

Jewdle says that any “Jewish” word is fair game – names of texts, holidays, slang, prayers and more. Words can be in English, Hebrew, Yiddish or Aramaic. And you get an extra letter – Jewdle’s words have six letters, while Wordle has five – because five letters aren’t enough for all those expressive, throat-clearing Jewish words like chutzpah.

As we pondered our first guess, we discovered the biggest problem with Jewdle. How do you correctly spell a word in English that started out with Hebrew characters? The answer is, “You don’t”! Since transliteration is based on how a word sounds, there is no correct spelling, and variations in transliteration can be found depending on the book – or article or printed calendar or essay….

The Festival of Lights is our worst-case scenario for transliteration. You can spell it Chanukah, Hanukkah, Hannukkah, and more – and all are acceptable. It’s sounding out in English – how a Hebrew word could be spelled. But since you can’t squeeze any of the common variations into Jewdle’s six spaces, – forget Hannnukkah and let’s consider another Jewish word that’s related to the same holiday.

How do you spell the spinning top with a Hebrew letter on each side? We spell it dreidel, the most common spelling – but that’s too long – 7 letters. So is draydle. Guess we have to go with draydl then. But no one spells it that way.  And in Jewdle there’s no room for apostrophes. No B’nai Mitzvah. No Ma’ariv.

We don’t want to brag, but we know something about meshugge spellings. When we wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words for the Jewish Publication Society, we not only had to pronounce and define words, we also had to spell them. We were tasked with creating a group of rules and then being consistent with them.

For example, you often see Yiddish words spelled with “sch” –  schlump seems to have more oomph than shlump. But we took a clue from Yiddish experts who explained that the “sch” is basically a German approach. In Yiddish, the “sch” sound is made by the letter shin, which means that the “sh” spelling is technically more correct. So while we chose to start all those “sch” words with “sh,” we double-listed them in the glossary, so you can be sure to find your schmo or schmendrick.

Oy! You’re just asking for trouble when you try to transliterate a foreign language.

We appreciate the effort and good intentions that went into creating Jewdle. It reminds us of a similar phenomenon when the Christmas Elf on a Shelf had to move over to make room for the Mensch on a Bench. The Mensch’s creator, Neal Hoffman, had the best of intentions. His son saw the ubiquitous elf on a shopping trip one December and wanted one. So his dad created a Jewish version.

by Neal Hoffman

But just like there’s no one right way to spell a Yiddish word in English, there’s no right way to dress a Jewish plush doll. Moshe the Mensch has come under fire for his Orthodox garb; critics argue that not all mensches (not even most of them!) wear a stereotypical black hat. And why the tallit?

Oy! Some things just don’t translate.

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Putting a New Accent on Hanukkah

We’re done eating the leftover stuffing, and we’ve wrapped presents for the weekend when we’ll see the kids. We’ve lit the first three candles and it’s Hanukkah 5782 – because we can’t bear to mention 2021 again.

To celebrate Hanukkah and the miracle of the one-day supply of oil that lasted eight days, Jews around the world fry foods in oil. What they fry depends on where they live.

The traditional Ashkenazi favorite is potato latkes. This is no surprise since potatoes were cheap and plentiful in Eastern Europe, where the majority of our ancestors came from. Instead of potatoes, Sephardic Jews, who come from Spain, Portugal, North Africa, the Middle East and beyond, fry sweetened dough – and make donuts. 

We need to give these donuts a try – mainly because we like donuts, but also because we’re trying to break out of our Ashkenormative mindset.

Ashkenormative?

We learned the word recently. It means assuming that the Ashkenazic way to do things – from holiday foods to song melodies– is the right way. In the United States, Ashkenazi culture is the default because the majority the Jewish immigrants to America were from Poland, Russia, Hungary and other Eastern European countries, where the Jews were of the Ashkenazic variety. We grew up with Yiddish-speaking grandparents (Bubbes and Zaydes), who taught us their ways to celebrate.

But Jews are ethnically and culturally diverse. There’s a whole world of Sephardic Jews out there whose Nonnas and Nonnos spoke Ladino (the Spanish/Hebrew language) and passed along their beloved customs to the next generation.

The world is getting smaller and more connected every day, no small thanks to the internet and Google, which served up 294,000 listings when we looked for “Sephardic Hanukkah customs.”

So this Hanukkah, if you want to widen your Jewish experiences and get a taste of Sephardic customs, start with potato latkes and then venture forth.

Make some latkes

Grate potatoes and an onion in the food processor, or if you want to go old school, do the grating by hand. (Keep some Band-Aids handy). Or make it easier on yourself and start with a bag of shredded hash browns. Let the kids mix in an egg and a little matzah meal or flour. 

 

making a big batch of latkes

While your children might prefer latkes that taste like Tater Tots, this is a chance to introduce them to new flavors, such as parsnip, sweet potato, or zucchini and carrot. Shred the veggies and add them in.

Fry some dough

Perhaps best-known are Israeli sufganiyot, donuts stuffed with everything from mocha cream and raspberry jam to pistachio mousse and chocolate ganache and decorated with whipped cream or icing.

a sufganiyot ad from Roladin bakery in Israel… we wish we could taste them



In Spain, Italy, and Latin America, yeasty dough balls called bunuelos are fried and served with a syrup of sugar, honey and water. In Turkey and Greece, they’re called lokmades; rosewater is sometimes added to the syrup. In Cuba, the batter includes mashed cooked yucca and the donut is twisted into a figure eight to symbolize infinity and a wish for good luck and long life. 

Make some music

It’s easy to expand your musical horizons beyond “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” Hanukkah music ranges from klezmer to classic Debbie Friedman tunes. Download a few tunes in advance or pull up a Spotify Hanukkah playlist to listen to as you do your holiday prep.

Writer Adam Eilath, who has North African roots, describes a Yemenite Hanukkah tradition: “It was customary for the Jewish women to wear clothing decorated with bells, and after the lighting of the candles, they would go out into the street and play music using the bells to celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah.” 

You can gift the kids some bells, tambourines, maracas or even a kazoo. After you light the candles, you can all dance around the living room or the block. One of the most famous Ladino Hanukkah songs is “Oco Kandelikas” (Eight Candles). This catchy melody by classical guitarist Flory Jagoda has repeating words that you can easily learn.

old-school kandelikas

If you want more Sephardic tunes, this Yemenite Hannukah dance medley will get you going.  

If you want something current, you can impress your kids with the newest Hanukkah song. Broadway star Daveed Diggs (yes, he’s Jewish) raps and sings “A Puppy for Hanukkah.” The song was a surprise hit for him!

End the holiday with a merenda.

Among Sephardic communities in Spain, Portugal and Italy, families and friends often gather together for a potluck meal on the last day of Hanukkah, which is Monday, Dec. 6. The meal is known as “la merenda,” which means “early snack” in Italian.

If you’re still exhausted from all the Thanksgiving cooking, host a merenda: Invite some neighbors and teach them this new vocabulary word. Then they can all bring something to the party.

Happy Hanukkah to our families, friends and fans of The Word Mavens!

 

 

 

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The Dollar Store is Now $5

Everyone’s kvetching about prices going up and we’re no exception. It doesn’t help that we did some Thanksgiving food shopping this week. Is cranberry sauce usually $1.79 a can?

We recently stopped at the neighborhood bagel store for our usual dozen and we pulled out a $20 to pay. The cashier held out her hand and announced, “Your total is $24.”

Maybe they have supply chain issues. Maybe the poppy seeds were waiting on a boat that was stuck in the Suez Canal. Maybe severe storms in the Midwest sent flour prices soaring. Perhaps they had no choice but to raise their prices. It’s still annoying. We want our bagels!

A recent outing to a local craft fair was disappointing because everything seemed to be overpriced. Plastic earrings for $27? A fancy scarf for $85? But the clincher was a knitted wool scrap hat for $68. Ellen knits and knows that the yarn to make the hat had likely been in the crafter’s stash for years. No supply chain issue here. More likely, the crafter was just jumping on the inflation bandwagon.  She worked hard on that hat, why not charge more? 

Joyce was excited to find a solar-powered rainbow maker on The New York Times’ list of great gifts under $25. She has one suctioned to her sunroom window and she loves it. But the time she clicked on the link a day later to order, the price had doubled. We’re pretty sure the rainbow makers were already in a warehouse waiting for customers to bite. Did they raise the price because the gift had gotten 15 minutes of fame?

We’re privileged to be able to afford price increases, and we really have no reason to kvetch. We understand that there are reasons for inflation, including a shortage of workers and the high price of gas that’s required to transport everything to us.

But . . . for some reason when we think of people who are raising their prices, the Yiddish word chazer keeps coming to mind. A chazer is a pig or a greedy person. You could say: “Don’t be such a chazer. Why are you taking all the free notepads at the auto show?” It often refers to food – and taking more than you can eat. “Your plate can’t hold so many slices of Thanksgiving pie. Don’t be a chazer.” 


Disney was caught in the act of being a chazer when the company stopped running free trams from its parking lots to the theme parks, forcing visitors to walk nearly a mile to get to the magic. Fans of the “happiest place on Earth,” who love princesses and parades, turned angry on-line and raged that Disney is “all about maximizing profit” and “greed.”  Facing complaints on social media, the company is reconsidering its policy – lest it be lumped in with Scrooge McDuck.

While we’re resigned to paying more, we’re not so happy when we pay more and get less. In a recent newsletter, NPR reporter Greg Rosalsky proposed a new word to describe this phenomenon: skimpflation. “It’s when, instead of simply raising prices, companies skimp on the goods and services they provide.”

We noticed this years ago when Musselman’s put indentations in its applesauce jars – they called it “easy-grip handles” – and gave us 23 ounces instead of 24. When the pound bag of coffee beans went from 16 ounces to 12 for the same price.

Wawa has felt the pain of rising food costs: Their beloved 6-inch Shorti hoagie was $4.39 last summer. Now it’s $4.99. If they wanted to keep the price the same and just skimp, it would be a 4-inch Shorti.  But then it would be a mouthful, not a sandwich.

 

Skimpflation also refers to a lack of services. It started during COVID, when hotels found it easier and more sanitary to put out prepackaged muffins rather than a big breakfast buffet.  Stores reopened to in-person shopping with limited hours because they can’t get staff. Airlines put customers on hold for hours because employees are answering the phones from home. Turnpike rest-stop paper towel dispensers stay empty and the floors are unmopped because of a shortage of workers. 

We’re old enough to remember inflation, like in 1986, when our home mortgage interest rate was 18%. (Yes, we’ve refinanced four times). We remember 1979, when gas pumps ran dry, gas prices spiked, and cars were lined up around the block to get into a gas station. We’ve been telling our kids that a bank account should pay 4-6% interest. An account that yields less than 1 percent interest can’t last forever, even though it’s been 10-plus years.

We understand the big picture, but the higher prices are still annoying. We’ll keep an eye on gas prices. We’ll use the coupons that come in the neighborhood clipper. And we’ll continue to kvetch as we click to order four rainbow makers. They will be really cool Hanukkah presents.  

 

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