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June 16, 2005

Can you spell "pilpul"?

It must be that the national spelling bee is otherwise too easy, because Hebrew and Yiddish words are infiltrating the contest, according to the Jewish Week. (via Kesher Talk)

If the contestants at the Scripps National Spelling Bee have spelling superpowers, Hebrew words appear to be their kryptonite.

As in the past, a few Hebrew and Yiddish words were tossed into this year’s competition held last week in Washington. So spellers fluent in Greek and Latin etymology were faced with words that bore no resemblance to anything in the English language — "pilpul" and "milchig," for instance.
That is so wrong. Pilpul? How many Jews know what that is, let alone are able to spell it?

What about tossing a kid for misspelling "ulpan" as "uhlpan"? Ask John Minnick, a 14-year-old from Roanoke, Virginia. And what about "Lubavitcher" or "levirate" or "minyan"? This year, a Chinese-American girl misspelled "minyan." Showing grace, she said it was good to be exposed to other cultures. But her father's Jewish boss thought it was wrong. According to her mother, "He called us the next day and said, 'Of course I know the word. I didn’t think it was fair!'" And last year, a kid from Iowa misspelled "Lubavitcher." The article asks, "Was it wrong to expect a kid from the heartland to know the names of chasidic sects?" I don't know, but maybe they should have asked him who the Messiah is.

Am I complaining too much? Shouldn't I be pleased that Jewish concepts are being added to the mainstream? Not necessarily. I suspect these words are added because they're considered exotic and can be used to trip up the kids who prepare with massive word lists. What bothers my sense of fairness is that when a word comes from a language that doesn't use Roman characters, there necessarily will be differences in transliteration. (Just ask Soccer Dad about "Haveil Havalim" -- or is it "Havel Havalim"?) Why is it fair to insist on one correct transliteration?

Maybe, though, it's a net gain in the end. Kids from Kentucky are learning Yiddish.
"Yiddish words are cool words," said the Louisville, Ky., seventh-grader.

His favorites?

"Megillah, schmaltz and stuff," he said.
We'll wait till he's older to teach him the really cool Yiddish words, like . . . oh, never mind.