More Than Words

Posted by mwallach on June 5, 2013 in New To You |

Dear That’s Life,
It’s fair to say I’m often unable to correctly spell or even define the winning word in the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But this year, when a 13- year old boy of Indian descent from Queens, NY correctly spelled ‘knaidel’ and with that won the national championship, I got it right. Arguments have ensued everywhere including in The New York Times as to whether the word should be spelled ‘knaidel’, ‘kneidel,’ or ‘kneidyl.’ Regardless, it has become a source of pride for Jews everywhere.

Making breakfast for my children the next morning, I made sure to tell them the news. Responses ranged from smiles to jokes about why the winning word was not something like ‘rugelach.’ At first they didn’t understand that knaidel is the singular form of knaidlach, a word with which they are familiar, but they quickly appreciated that, if nothing else, ‘knaidel’ as the final word in a nationally televised contest was nothing short of cool. After a few more jokes about words ending in ‘ach’ that my family does not appreciate when I use (see: bletlach), my middle-schooler stopped and said, “Is [knaidel] even a real word?” And of course, the answer was ‘yes.’

New Yorkers of all stripes can be often be heard integrating Yiddish into daily life. A few years ago, I laughed when a reporter on the radio referred to a back up on the Long Island Expressway as meshugah. Beyond that, words like oy, nudge, bubkis, chutzpah and fahrkelmpt – not to mention examples that cannot be included here – have all been heard on broadcasts ranging from NBC’s Saturday Night Live to the evening news. However, the popularity of Yiddish in American life is not really significant for the correct spelling of a particular transliterated word. Rather, it’s about what its integration may tell us about our lives in the first place.

In “Some Say the Spelling of a Winning Word Just Wasn’t Kosher” on page one of The New York Times, Joseph Berger wrote, “If nothing else, the dispute is a window into the cultural stews that languages like Yiddish, not to mention English, become as people migrate and assimilate.” That was like a light bulb over my head. Berger got it exactly right: ‘knaidel’ as a dictionary entry and as the winning word in the spelling bee reflects just how normal and accepted Jews have become in American society.

Remember the Seinfeld episode that explored the unappreciated greatness of cinnamon bobka vs. its more popular sibling, the chocolate bobka? Suffice it to say, I am confident that this episode in the 1990s was lost on millions of viewers in the Midwest (“Bob, who?”), let alone Seinfeld’s subsequent ode to the marble rye. The bobka debate in primetime on a hit show reflected a certain normalcy, with Jewish life as part of the great American melting pot. I am not sure how many Italian-Americans get excited when a character on TV eats lasagna. I can tell you, though, that when fictional Deputy White House Chief of Staff Joshua Lyman (Bradley Whitford) on ‘The West Wing’ picked Yeshiva University over the Dallas Cowboys in the weekly office pool, Jews everywhere cheered.

Okay: I know what you’re thinking. There are plenty of Larry Davids and Woody Allens in Hollywood. One liners or moments such as these should be expected. But that is completely besides the point. These references are so commonplace precisely because writers and producers recognize that Jewish-isms and Yiddish-isms have earned substantive and secured places in society. Because Jewish culture is so deeply integrated into American culture, these references are appreciated by a greater audience.

Consider Jack Lew, Eric Cantor, Chuck Schumer and Joseph Lieberman: four high ranking American politicians whose Jewish identities are well-known. An argument could be made that Jews have been involved in politics since the beginning of time. But then, along comes a cute, young teenager from Chicago who wows everyone as he sings and plays piano on national television on “America’s Got Talent.” Edon Pinchot made it to the semi-finals of this major competition and wore his kippah throughout the process. In this day and age of entitled teens, we were proud of this young man whose menschlechkeit was nothing short of impressive and remains so, and for good reason.

Many remarked at the kiddush Hashem Edon created through his demeanor and by literally wearing his faith on his head for all the world to see. He well represented Jews around the world, but I wondered if anyone else honestly cared. Irish Catholics in Boston could not have been as excited as we were to see Edon’s kippah as he performed. They may not have even noticed it at all. As I thought about it further, I was finally able to ask myself the following question: What does it mean if a Jew wearing a kippah on TV, in a business meeting, in an ER or while screening bags at the airport isn’t that big of a deal anymore to anyone who isn’t Jewish?

The proper spelling of knaidel, with an ‘e’ or an ‘a’ or a ‘y’, continued to make headlines as this column was being written. The mere inclusion of knaidel in the spelling bee should spark a much greater discussion for us as a people. We have too often been persecuted for being different. And paradoxically, in spite of our need to stay somewhat apart in order to maintain our identity and preserve our heritage, we desire acceptance by others.

So now that it looks like we’ve “made it,” are we happy?
MLW

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