Michael Cole from Toronto writes:
“My wife’s South African relatives refer to a Shabbat or festival challah as a ‘kitke.’ This seems to be a uniquely South African term, unknown, as far as I am aware, even among other people of Lithuanian descent. [Mr. Cole is referring to the fact that South African Jewry originated largely in Jewish immigrants from Lithuania.] In fact, South African Jews are unaware of the term ‘challah’ until they arrive elsewhere in the Jewish world. ‘Kitke’ doesn’t sound particularly Yiddish, but neither does it sound like Afrikaans or Zulu or any other African language. Do you have any idea on this matter?”
Mr. Cole can find the answer to his question in Volume III of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research’s Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, in which no fewer than nine pages, complete with linguistic maps and charts, are devoted to the various words by which Sabbath and festival breads were known to the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. Although “challah” has taken over completely among the Jews of the United States, effacing all its rivals, a look at Ashkenazic Europe from Alsace in the West to Belarus and Ukraine in the East reveals, in addition to Western and Eastern Yiddish khale, five other words for such a bread: berkhes, dacher, koylatsh, shtritsl and — the word asked about by Mr. Cole — kitke.
Khale was by far the most widespread of these words, thus explaining its predominance in America. It derives from Hebrew h.allah, which has the meaning in the Bible of a flat cake, baked on coals, that constituted the simplest and most inexpensive of sacrifices that could be offered on the altar. (Its association with sacred ritual was very likely the reason that h.allah later became attached to Sabbath and holiday breads.) Apart from much of Germany, Czechoslovakia and Transylvania, khale was used in almost every part of Ashkenazic Europe, often in conjunction with other terms. Sometimes but not always, khale was the general term for a Sabbath and holiday bread while another word designated to a local variety, or else khale, referred to a plain bread as opposed to a fancier one. Thus, for instance, the word koylatsh was used widely throughout Poland and Russia to denote, in some areas, a braided challah; in others, a decorated challah baked for weddings and celebrations, and in still others, any braided roll, braided yeast cake, or even filled cake or pastry. (The word koylatsh itself, though its ultimate etymology is unclear, already was in use among French Jews in the lifetime of renowned 11th-century rabbinic commentator Rashi; he speaks of a coilush as a kind of long, thin bread, like a baguette.) Shtritsl (apparently from medieval German Struz, a swelling — as of dough with yeast? — or a protuberance) had much the same range of meanings as koylatsh but was more restricted in its geographical range and was used occasionally to designate a festive Christian bread rather than a Jewish one.
Birkhes (or barkhes) and dacher, on the other hand, were general terms like khale, limited to Germany and to Central Europe. Both words come from the same verse in the Book of Proverbs, Birkat adonai hi ta’ashir (“The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich”). The verse traditionally was (and still is) embroidered on the cloth napkins with which the challah is covered on the Sabbath table, or else it was engraved on a special challah knife.
This brings us to kitke. Why Mr. Cole thinks it doesn’t “sound like” Yiddish is unclear to me, since it certainly sounds like Yiddish to my ears. The word is composed of the German Kitt and the Slavic suffix –ke, which is found in many Yiddish words and names. (Think of pushke, kishke and katshke, or of such familiar forms as Motke and Tsvika.) Moreover, kitke, as is shown by the Language and Culture Atlas of Ashkenazic Jewry, was a Yiddish word restricted entirely to Lithuania, where it generally existed in tandem with khale. This explains why it is so prevalent to this day among South African Jews.
Kitt in German means “putty,” which is to say, a quick-drying plaster or cement that is used as a filler or adhesive, as well for making ornamental patterns or figures on such surfaces as walls and ceilings. Indeed, in some areas of Lithuania, kitke referred not to the whole challah but simply to the braids or decorations that were attached to the challah like putty before baking, and the word must have originally referred to these. (Kitka in Polish, also from Kitt, means an ornamental plume.) In many places, however, kitke came to designate an entire kind of bread — one that, like a koylatsh or a shtritsl, differed from a plain khale by virtue of its decorative features. And in still others, kitke replaced khale entirely as the word for a challah of any kind, as it also did in South Africa. No need to search in Afrikaans or Zulu, Mr. Cole; plain Litvish Yiddish gives you your answer.
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