Last Thursday, a 13-year-old boy won the Scripps National Spelling Bee by spelling “knaidel,” Yiddish for matzo ball. But the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, which created the standard Yiddish transliteration now used in libraries around the world, holds that the correct spelling is “kneydl.”
The spelling bee has stuck by the reference it considers authoritative, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (which attributes “knaidel” to the Middle High German word “knödel”). In the ensuing tempest in a soup bowl, one vital fact was drowned by the schmaltz: Spelling has been the life and death of nationality.
Yiddish is a thousand years old, but YIVO, founded in 1925 in what is now Vilnius in Lithuania, finished standardizing the spelling of Yiddish words in the Hebrew alphabet only in 1937. YIVO (an acronym for the Yiddish Scientific Institute) was created by scholars who saw Judaism as a nationality based on language, not religion — and who insisted, amid rising anti-Semitism, that the Yiddish language was as rich as any other. For Yiddish to matter, spelling had to count — which is why this orthographic debate is far more fraught than it appears.
In the decades before the Holocaust, national identity and Yiddish spelling were deeply intertwined. When I read Yiddish literature printed before World War II, I can often guess the writers’ political milieu through their spelling alone. In 19th-century Europe, religious writers spelled Yiddish words by imitating Hebrew, using vowel markings where none were necessary so their new writing would resemble ancient Hebrew texts. Meanwhile, Jews who wanted to assimilate into European life wrote in a Yiddish spelling that openly imitated German. This brand of spelling — it used Hebrew letters to represent even silent German characters in shared cognates — subtly announced, as leaders of the German Jewish Reform movement once proclaimed, that “Berlin is our Jerusalem.”
Spelling in the early Soviet Union was even more perverse. There, government control over Yiddish schools and presses led to the invention and enforcement of a literally anti-Semitic Yiddish orthography by spelling the language’s many Semitic-origin words phonetically instead of in Hebrew. (Imagine spelling “naïve” as “nigh-eve” in order to look less French.) It was an attempt to erase Jewish culture’s biblical roots, letter by letter.
These psychologically destructive spellings — implying, as they all did in various ways, that Jewish culture didn’t belong in Europe — were what YIVO was fighting against. YIVO’s founding emboldened a highbrow Yiddish intellectual life that flourished between the world wars and soon used the new spelling as its hallmark.
Of course, it was already too late. By 1945 the Nazis had killed the majority of the world’s Yiddish speakers. YIVO itself survived only through the efforts of Jewish prisoners, including celebrated poets who were forced by the Germans to loot YIVO’s archives for a Nazi-created “Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question.” Members of this “paper brigade” risked their lives to smuggle out cultural treasures, including documents that scholars had painstakingly collected to record and standardize Yiddish spelling.
But when survivors reestablished YIVO in New York City, it faced the impossible task of reviving the dead — and many of the living weren’t interested. In Palestine and then Israel, Zionists promoted Hebrew at the expense of Yiddish, sometimes violently; as early as 1914, a major Yiddish intellectual leader was attacked as he tried to leave a hotel near Tel Aviv.
Meanwhile, most American Jews, eager to assimilate and ignorant of Yiddish’s new standards, rejected the language as their immigrant parents’ lowbrow tongue. After the Holocaust, using YIVO’s modern spelling became a political choice, announcing oneself as a living heir to an intellectual rather than a religious tradition. (Yiddish speakers in Hasidic communities today, for instance, rarely bother with YIVO spelling.)
In the spelling-bee debate, aging American Yiddish speakers — the vast majority of whom cannot read Yiddish — have largely dismissed YIVO’s “kneydl” spelling as irrelevant. For them, it is not meaningful, and that’s part of this story’s profound sadness. YIVO’s transliteration system, finalized after World War II, assumes you can read Yiddish. It assumes you understand how Hebrew characters are being replaced; it assumes you appreciate the choices and losses that accompany each letter. The spelling bee’s Webster’s, by contrast, assumes you don’t care about the life and death of a nation. It assumes you care only how an English reader might pronounce a word.
For irony, look no further than Webster’s — which beats YIVO hands down when it comes to forcing unnatural spelling for nationalistic aims. Noah Webster first published his “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” in 1806. Most of his adult readers had been born as British subjects. Eager to distinguish American culture from its former oppressor, Webster invented new “American” spellings — honor, analyze, offense, pretense and many more, equal in pretense — out of whole cloth. For writers in a young country, the new spelling was itself a political statement.
The only real difference between Webster’s project and YIVO’s is that, for six million devastating reasons, YIVO’s failed and Webster’s succeeded. Its success can be measured by the millions of viewers who watched this year’s national spelling bee — and by the bee’s many gifted contestants, who are too young to appreciate the pain and loss that hides behind so many of the words they get “right.”
A famous Yiddish song, “Oyfn Pripetshik” (“On the Hearth”), describes children sitting in a schoolroom learning how to spell. Toward the end, the lyrics say: “When you become older, children / You yourselves will understand / How many tears lie in the letters / And how much weeping.”
Dara Horn is a scholar of Jewish literature and the author of the novels The World to Come, In the Image, All Other Nights and the forthcoming A Guide for the Perplexed.