An Essential Point

By Philologos

Published November 24, 2006, issue of November 24, 2006.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Ron Kalom writes from Taos, N.M., to ask:

“Dos pintele yid? Dos pintele yud? Dos pintele yod? Which one is correct, and how does one translate this Yiddish idiom?”

Let’s take these words one by one. Dos means “the” or “that” in Yiddish — in this case, “the.” Pintele (PIN-teh-leh), a noun with a diminutive ending that can also be used adjectivally, means “little point.” Yid means “Jew.” Yud and Yod are variants of the name of the 10th letter of the Hebrew alphabet, i, which also happens to be both the first letter of yid and the smallest letter — a little point, as it were — of Hebrew’s 22. Thus, rephrasing Mr. Kalom’s question, we find ourselves asking this: Does the Yiddish idiom in question mean “the little point [of a] Jew,” or does it mean “the little point [of] the letter Yud?”

The answer to both questions is yes, although as generally used, it is dos pintele yid rather than dos pintele yud, and should be translated — at least literally — as “the little point of a Jew.”

Yet, this literal translation demands explication. Here, culled from various English sources, are a number of freer translations of dos pintele yid that I have been able to find: “The core of one’s Jewishness”; “the very core of Judaism”; “the Jewish spark”; “the spark of Jewish spirituality”; “the innermost Jewish spark”; “the little point of light in the Jewish soul”; “the quintessence of Jewish identity”; “the essential Jew”; “innate Jewishness’; ‘the heart and soul of each individual Jew”; “the little Jew within the Jew”; “the tiny yet brilliant spark which is the unchanging, concentrated essence of Jewishness;” “the saving remnant, however deeply buried, in every Jewish heart.”

By now you’ve gotten the idea. If I had to explain dos pintele yid myself, I would say that it’s a way of referring to an indestructible core of Jewishness that supposedly exists within every Jew and that always has the potential, even in totally assimilated or uneducated Jews, to return every Jew to the Jewish fold by making its presence felt at the most unexpected and unpredictable moments.

As such, dos pintele yid is a mystical notion. It posits that all Jews, even if they are unaware of it or have been raised so un-Jewishly that they do not know they are Jewish, have within them a Jewish essence that can be activated under certain circumstances. To some Jews, this may seem psychological nonsense; to others, a deep spiritual truth. As a belief, it has a long history. The book of Deuteronomy quotes Moses as saying to the Children of Israel, “Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath; but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us today” — and there is an ancient midrash that interprets these words to mean that the soul of every Jew destined to be born in the future was present at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Every Jew thus has a “little Jewish point” inside him because every Jewish soul has, however inaccessible to consciousness, a memory of having been at Sinai.

But because Yud, the first letter of yid, is, as we have said, the tiniest of Hebrew letters, dos pintele yid is also a double entendre having the alternate form of dos pintele yud. Moreover, this dual meaning is reinforced by the fact that di shvartse pintelakh,” the black little points,” is a Yiddish expression for the Hebrew letters. (Most probably, this expression referred originally to the Hebrew vowel points and eventually came to designate the Hebrew letters themselves.) Just as dos pintele yud, therefore, the smallest of the “little black points,” is the letter that begins the word for “Jew,” so does every Jew have within him a “little point” that may serve as a reminder that he is a Jew. And just as the Yod is often present as an auxiliary vowel indicator in what is known as “full spelling” in Hebrew while absent when such spelling is not employed, so the “little point” within the Jew is always potentially there even when it is invisible.

An expression known to every speaker of Yiddish, dos pintele yid also became known to many nonspeakers of the language because of a hit Yiddish musical by that name that premiered in New York in 1909. Staged by renowned director and impresario Boris Thomashefsky, “Dos Pintele Yid,” advertised in English as “The Jewish Spark,” was an enormous success, filling the 2,500-seat People’s Theater to capacity night after night for an entire season. Its title song, which began with the line “Dayn kroyn iz dos pintele yid, fil gelitn shoyn,” “Your crown is the little point of a Jew, it’s suffered so much,” became a hit tune in its own right and was recorded in numerous renditions, the best known of which was by “the king of Yiddish music,” as he was called, Leo Fuld.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.