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 email@example.com.