by Rabbi Eric Linder
Knaidel …. K-N-A-I-D-E-L … Knaidel.
With that utterance, Arvind Mahankali won the 86th National Scripps Spelling Bee. Arvind is a 13-year old Indian-American living in Bayside, N.Y.
Only in America. Here’s a kid of Indian descent that won a coveted American spelling bee championship yesterday due to his correct spelling of a Yiddish word. A knaidel is a dumpling, usually involving a matzah ball.
Jewish bloggers and journalists seem to have a sense of pride at this word choice from the spelling bee. Its use in the competition seems to be a hallmark that Yiddish words have entered the mainstream vernacular. Non-Jews and Jews alike schlep when on errands, they both think that the occasional person is a schlemiel, and of course, there’s the ubiquitous sigh seemingly used by all people … oy.
But it’s not just words. Sure, Yiddish words and sayings have become a staple Americana, but it’s culture as well. Modern television shows and movies contain references to Jewish culture, from The Hangover to The Simpsons. Many non-Jewish friends of mine reference Charlotte’s conversion to Judaism in HBO’s Sex and the City. People look at Seinfeld as a prototypical American Jew. There’s Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Billy Crystal, Bob Dylan – these are all famous icons and they are all inseparable from their Jewish heritage.
It makes me happy to say this: Being Jewish is cool. In mainstream American culture, Judaism is hip. It’s trendy. Judaism is not only accepted into culture, it’s welcomed.
But yet, there’s something missing from all this – from the pundits’ discussion of variant spellings of “knaidel” to the celebration of Jewish characters in entertainment, we’re only seeing part of what’s important.
It reminds me of a song I learned in Temple Kol Ami’s children’s choir. “Jewish is more than a bagel. Jewish is more than a knish.” Jewish is more than a matzah ball floating around in your soup. Jewish is more than a bagel. And it is certainly more than the correct spelling of “knaidel.”
As I say these words, it occurs to me just how much I love Jewish culture. OK, so I can’t stand the taste of lox or cream cheese. But I love matzah ball soup. I enjoy a good, loud, frenzied discussion. I can spend half an hour discussing which New York City deli has the best pastrami. But Jewish is more than these things. Jewish culture is not synonymous with Judaism.
Sure, it is certainly worth noting that the championship spelling bee word was a Yiddish word. And I think it is worth observing the various elements of Jewish culture that seem to be seeping into the discourse of American life. But let’s not confuse Jewish culture with Judaism.
Judaism is a culture, yes. But it’s also an intellectual pursuit, a theological struggle and a routine for daily life. Hannah stands tomorrow morning as a bat mitzvah not because she may eat Jewish foods and enjoy the quintessential Jewish movies. She stands as a bat mitzvah because she continues to learn Judaism. She continues to act Jewishly.
I challenge all of us to do the same.
Judaism is meant to be more about Shabbat, and less about mahjong. It’s Torah, not TV. It’s more about learning Hebrew, and less about learning about famous Jewish athletes.
Our culture is a wonderful adhesive that helps bind us together. It helps when we meet someone and play “Six degrees of Jewish geography.” But it’s only a start.
It’s a necessary ingredient to a Jewish identity, but it is not sufficient for a Jewish identity. Remember that the world depends on three things: Torah, avodah, and good deeds. These are the building blocks to a meaningful, substantive Jewish life.
When asked to define Judaism while standing on one foot, many know that Hillel said, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor.” But many often forget that there is more to his teaching. He also said, “The rest is commentary. Now go and study.” We have our culture, our bagels and our borscht belt. But now, go and study.
“Rabbi Linder’s Musings” can be found at rabbiericlinder.com.