May 28, 2016
It happened again. Just this week. The final round of the annual Scripps National Spelling bee required contestants to be able to spell a Yiddish word for a traditional Jewish food. Jairam Hathwar, (not a “member of the tribe”), a 13-year-old from Corning, New York, was asked in one of the final ultimate rounds of the competition to spell the word “chremslach.” When asked to spell the word, the kid reportedly asked for a moment to compose himself. I imagine it must be because he was shvitzing and a bissele fahrblunged because he was so farklempt over the question.
I myself am not sure I could spell the word, nor for that matter have I ever even had one nor would I know one if I saw it. I have since learned that chremslach are flat fried matzah meal cakes traditionally eaten during Passover. (I also subsequently learned that chremslach is the plural of chremsel.) Not only do you have to know Yiddish and Yiddish grammar, but apparently it helps if you know Bubbe’s Peashdik recipes as well.
This is not the first time Yiddish and Jewish food have made an appearance in the spelling bee. Some of you may recall in 2013 when the final word of the National Spelling Bee was Knaydel, and it was spelled correctly by 13 year old Arvind Mahankali, an eighth grader from Queens. I spoke about it at the time and marveled how this son of immigrants from India, who until then had never eaten, and probably never even seen knaydel nailed the word.
In 2009, “kichel” — a Jewish dessert cookie made an appearance. I read, and I honestly do not know if it is true or if it was tongue in cheek, but I read that the sentence used to put the word in context for the contestant was: “The thought of someone kvetching about her kichel gave Meryl the shpilkes.” (Since I read it on the internet, I assume it has to be true.)
What is going on here?
I remember when I was growing up in Pikesville, a suburb of Baltimore, where the population was over 90 % Jewish, one of the most popular restaurants, and a client of my father’s was a Chinese restaurant that was packed every Sunday night, the Pagoda Inn. On its menu next to the word “wanton” as in wanton soup in parentheses it explained, “wanton is a kreplach”.
The great Yiddish writer and Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer was asked after a lecture at Harvard University why he writes in Yiddish, which the questioner described as a dead language. He replied, “I am 87 years old. I want to tell you there is a big difference between dying and being dead.” (David Lowe shared with me a different response to the same question. Singer mischievously explained that he likes to write about ghosts, and ghosts like to speak in a dead language.)
The Yiddish writers had a unique relationship with their readers. It was based on a love and respect for them and the culture and world they lived in. As Singer once lovingly said, “There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love… In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of a frightened and hopeful humanity.”
He loved writing children’s books, and explained, “Children read books, not reviews. They don’t read to free themselves of guilt, to quench their thirst for rebellion, or to get rid of alienation. They still believe in God, the family, angels, devils, witches, goblins, logic, clarity, punctuation, and other such obsolete stuff…. They don’t expect their beloved writer to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it is not in his power. Only the adults have such childish allusions.”
Singer noted that, “The Jewish people have been in exile for 2,000 years; they have lived in hundreds of countries, spoken hundreds of languages and still they kept their old language, Hebrew. They kept their Aramaic, later their Yiddish; they kept their books; they kept their faith.”
Preserving the languages of our people and means of expression is one way we keep and sustain our faith. As Leon Wieseltier has observed, the American Jewish community is simultaneously both the most well-read and literate Jewish community in history and also the most ignorant Jewish community. We do not write, speak or understand Yiddish or Hebrew. For the first time in our history, unlike Jews in just about every other society where we lived, we do not have our own unique language and are not conversant or literate in traditional Jewish languages.
In his 1978 acceptance speech before the Academy Singer described Yiddish as, “a language of exile, without a land, without frontiers, not supported by any government.” He explained that it is, “a language which possesses no words for weapons, ammunition, military exercises, war tactics; a language that was despised by both gentiles and emancipated Jews.”
His speech about Yiddish when he received the Nobel Prize for literature is a wonderful description not just of the mama lashen, but of what it means to be a Jew. He said, “What the great religions preached, the Yiddish-speaking people of the ghettos practiced day in and day out. They were the people of The Book in the truest sense of the word. They knew of no greater joy than the study of man and human relations, which they called Torah, Talmud, Mussar, Cabala.
“The ghetto was not only a place of refuge for a persecuted minority but a great experiment in peace, in self-discipline and in humanism… My father’s home in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets. As a child I heard … all the arguments that the rationalists from Spinoza to Max Nordau brought out against religion. I heard from my father and mother all the answers that faith in God could offer to those who doubt and search for the truth. In our home and in many other homes the eternal questions were more actual than the latest news in the Yiddish newspaper.
“In spite of all the disenchantments and all my skepticism I believe that the nations can learn much from those Jews, their way of thinking, their way of bringing up children, their finding happiness where others see nothing but misery and humiliation. To me the Yiddish language and the conduct of those who spoke it are identical.”
He concluded his talk, “One can find in the Yiddish tongue and in the Yiddish spirit expressions of pious joy, lust for life, longing for the Messiah, patience and deep appreciation of human individuality. There is a quiet humor in Yiddish and a gratitude for every day of life, every crumb of success, each encounter of love. The Yiddish mentality is not haughty. It does not take victory for granted. It does not demand and command but it muddles through, sneaks by, smuggles itself amidst the powers of destruction, knowing somewhere that God’s plan for Creation is still at the very beginning.”
I am certain that the spelling bee officials did not have Singer’s thoughts in mind when they chose to include these words in the spelling bee, but we most certainly should.