A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Is this what's great about the U.S.--or what? UPDATE

The winner of the National Spelling Bee is from Queens, NY--a so-called "outer borough" of NYC. Arvand Mahankali, 13, won by accurately spelling "knaidel," a Yiddish word (of German origins the NYTimes explains!). It means dumpling (but I'm wondering if it doesn't mean "matzoh ball" in Yiddish-cooking households).

Mr. Mahankali has reached the age limit for the National Bee so he can't compete again (think of all those unspelled words circling in his head). He is philosophical about this: "I am retiring on a good note."

So what's so great? An Indian-American living in the middle of Queens wins the bee by spelling a Yiddish word of German origins, and the New York Times explains it all.

This reminds me of Bee Season by Myla Goldberg, which combines the Kabbala and the national spelling bee and sustains the magic realism of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story.

Right dumpling, wrong spelling. Yes, knaidels are matzo balls, but according to the Forward, the proper Yiddish spelling is knidel, or knydel. The Spelling Bee judges use the Merriam Webster dictionary, which does spell it knaidel. However you spell it, they're still matzo balls.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

A kneidel = a matzo ball.

Front page story in the NYT about the various spellings, transliterations, etc., of Yiddish words, including kneydel and Hanukkah.

(I think spelling bees are a terrible waste of time.  Even the National Geography Bee is idiotic.  At least its participants learn useful information, but real geographers work in private, not on stages.  The kids who are paralyzed by stage fright have no chance.)


Maybe the spelling bee shouldn't even use words transliterated from a language whose written form doesn't use the English alphabet.  Sometimes there is no single correct way to spell a Yiddish or Arabic word or name.  Think of how many different ways the surname of Moammar Whatsisname from Libya was spelled.

The number of children of Asian heritage on the screen for both the spelling bee and the geography bee was pretty striking.  I don't know any of their stories, but I am assuming that at least a fair number of them are the children of immigrants, or are immigrants themselves.  

Since I'm already treading on thin ice by broaching this topic, I might as well venture a bit farther out from shore: there are various immigration reform proposals floating about that distinguish between, let us say,  'more desirable' and 'less desirable' immigrants, favoring entrance of the former into this country at the expense of the latter.  I believe the children on-screen in these bees probably are emblematic of the former.  If I'm not mistaken, our current laws and policies already makes these distinctions to some extent - perhaps that is even a partial explanation for the disproportionate representation on our television screens.  These distinctions aren't racial or ethnic or national or cultural in character (although arguably they are social class-oriented), but may result in certain ethnicities or nationalities et al being favored at the expense of others.

Jim P. ---

The American immigration laws have been selective for many, many generations now.  They never allowed first come, first served.  

This isn't going to be politically correct, but here goes.  My question is:  is that necessarily unjust?  If there are poor people in Country A, then I ask: whose responsibility is it to raise thier standard of living -- their own country or their neighbor, Country B?  In particular, since the Conquistadores in Mexico there has always been an extremely rich upper class there.  Was it not that class' moral and Christian responsibility to raise the standard of living for the poor there?  Mexico still has an extremely rich upper class.  Why aren't the Mexican bishops litting into them to solve the Mexican problem of their underclass?

No, I'm ceretainly not saying that we shouldn't admit some of the poor Mexicans. But it seems to me that  raising of the standard of living of poor Mexicans should be a joint project between the Mexican and U. S, governments and people.   Further, little attention is given to the fact that every time an immigrant leaves his/her native country a whole culture is forfeited.  Is that fair?  Granted, it is more important to feed and educate their children, but they, including their children, are being deprived of something very precious in the process.  In other words, immigration is never an ideal solution to povery.   Not to mention the fact that the resources going to the immigrants is not being directed to the American poor, of which there are many millions at the moment.  (And I have mentioned only the Mexican immigrants!)

Yes, I know that the immigrants contribute a lot and many pay taxes.  But not enough, I dare say, to build the initial physical and social infra-structure (e.g., more schools) necessary to support them properly.  Or maybe they do contribute enough in taxes.  But given how Arizona complains, I would doubt it.  I would like to be enlightened with some data.

Complexity, complexity, complexity.

Yes AO, "comlexity, complexity, complexity."

We don't really know very much in detail about our Bee Winner. Joe Berger in his run-up of the Yiddish spelling issue in yesterday's NY Times, reports that  Arvind Mahankali is a son of immigrants from southern India, and New York City’s first national champion since 1997. We don't know if he was born here, or not, but I know that immigrant families in NYC, especially from Asia, are hep on a good education for their kids. There are a raft of after-school and Saturday schools to prepare kids for tests, especially those for the specialized high schools, such as Bronx Science, Hunter, Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech, etc. And why not for spelling bees? Their parents are serious about seeing the kids succeed and are proabably on their case day and night. Not a lot of old-time American families, like ours, are ready to push their kids in this way, though I bet at lot of grand-parents and great-grandparents did.

The wife of the man who ran our nearby former Chinese laundry used to query me extensively about the best high schools: which were they? How did you get in? Etc. Her English was Okay, her husband's not, but they knew what they wanted for their children.

On the issue of Mexican immigrants and their job prospects in their own country: The Newshour several years back ran a segment with Ray Suarez looking at that question. He interviewed a man whose job or title, I don't remember. He was a Mexican labor expert and he serverely criticized our immigration practices (and lack thereof). His criticism: easy entry into the U.S. labor market let  Mexican businesses and government off the hook in creating good jobs that would keep Mexicans at home. I thought his criticism had merit, but until the recent crash here, there was no reason for energetic Mexicans to stay in their own country when they could come here and earn relatively more money than they could there. The U.S. allows Mexico to evade some of its deep-seated economic and labor issues.

I add, from informal observation, that immigrants from further south, Peru, Ecuador, Chile, etc. seem to have good educations and better prospects here in getting well-paying jobs with benefits. In that sense, they seem more like the Chinese and Indians.

Yes, knaidels are matzo balls, but according to the Forward, the proper Yiddish spelling is knidel, or knydel.

Rubbish. The correct spelling would use Hebrew, and there's no standard transliteration. I mean, if you give two alternate spellings, and call them both "proper," why not a third alternative, as well? What are the rules? Do they establish a specific English dictionary that they use in Scripps? Because otherwise, it seems like a dumb word to put into a spelling bee.

Merriam-Webster is said to be the official dictionary and it agrees with the winner.

BTW, the last New York winner was Rebecca Sealfon in 1997 and she won with "euonym." Sounds Greek to me. Check out the list of winning words...a lot of Latin! In fact, I'd say not a lot of basic Anglo-Saxon. Wiki has the data.

So how is it pronoucned? Like knish or like knife?

The St. Louis kid who got to the finals again is Gokul Venkatachalam.  Among the words he spelled correctly was gulden.

Another useless word. 


Irene Baldwin: I think it's in the German KNoedel... as in English Noodle. But what do they say in the Bronx?

Abe Rosenzweig will have a view, so a question. Did the vast majority of people who spoke Yiddish, read in the Hebrew alphabet? OR if they read, did they read Yiddish in the German alphabet, i.e., a variant of the Roman alphabet?

They read it in the Hebrew alphabet (the letters are used differently in certain way--especially for vowels).

Well in the Bronx, I've never heard a knish ever pronounced other than k-nish (2 syllables ) like Knoebel's Amusment Park in PA is  K-noebels. but it looks like there are mutilpe ways to pronounce knaidel. I've never eaten one.

I had a k-nish once 60 years ago at Coney Island of all places.  It was a very gray, cold day with hardly any people around.  The knish was so delicious I've never forgotten exactly how it tasted :-)

I have never eatnen a K-nish, but my friend Molly Finn makes delicious K-naidels.

I'd be pretty surprised if you couldn't still eat a knish at Coney Island.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment