Had Jack Lebewohl of the legendary 2nd Ave Deli been competing yesterday in the final round of 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee, he would have lost to the winner, 13-year-old Arvind Mahankali. The Jewish food maven would have misspelled the winning word: ‘knaidel’.
“The thing is, we spell it k-n-e-i-d-e-l,” the deli man said in reference to the Jewish dumpling and Yiddish word for matzo ball, that was the winning word. He’s not sure how the judges could have been sure that Mahankali spelled the word correctly, when “there’s no Webster’s Dictionary for the spelling of Yiddish words.” (Though there is the widely accepted YIVO style, which spells it kneydl. )
‘Knaidel’ or ‘kneidel’, Lebewohl says it’s all good. He likened the difference in spellings to the differences in Yiddish pronunciations between Galicianers and Litvaks. “It’s also like how Polish Jews like their gefilte fish sweet, and the Hungarians like it with more pepper,” he said.
For Lebewohl, the elevation of the modest Jewish dumpling to the status of winning national spelling bee word essentially signifies that Yiddish is truly entering the vernacular. “Non-Jews in New York use Yiddish words all the time,” he said as he recalled how Al D’Amato unfortunately called Charles Schumer a “putzhead” during the 1998 New York senatorial race.
Lebewohl may be right, but Richard Schaffer, assistant principal at Nathaniel Hawthorne Middle School 74 in Bayside, Queens, where the winner is enrolled, is pretty sure that Indian-American Mahankali had never before said ‘knaidel’, let alone eaten one. “When you say ‘dumpling’ in this building, it means something different,” he said in reference to the school’s 60% Asian (mostly Chinese and Korean) population.
Although Schaffer could think of a few Jewish delis in the neighborhood around the school, he is pretty sure that the kids are not frequenting them. “And I can assure you that the Yiddish word for dumpling is not something heard in our school cafeteria,” he added.
“However, I’ll say that the only [spelling bee] word I knew how to spell was ‘knaidel.’”
“I think the only reason he knew the word was because it was German-related. Arvind [who finished in third place the two previous years] had been knocked out on German words before, so he was really studying up on the German roots and words so he wouldn’t be tripped up on them again,” the assistant principal said.
Schaffer said that the school has a number of events scheduled to celebrate Mahankali’s big win, including a special school-wide newscast and a ceremony that will be part of the school’s American Cancer Society walk-a-thon next Tuesday.
Lebewohl would be happy to host the spelling champion at the 2nd Ave Deli. “We’ll give him a tour, and also an education on the real way to spell ‘kneidel.’”