After three near-victories over the past four years, Arvind V. Mahankali won the 86th Scripps National Spelling Bee on Thursday. The word he spelled correctly to take the title: “knaidel.”
The unusual word, thanks to its prominent role in the nationwide competition—which this year hosted 281 contestants in National Harbor, Md.—instantly rose to the esteemed ranks of other head-scratchers, including “guetapens” and “cymotrichous,” the previous two words to catapult contestants to fame. But what, exactly, does "knaidel" mean? And could it also be spelled “kneidel”? Or is it “kneydl”?
According to the bee’s official pronouncer, Jacques Bailly, a knaidel is “a small mass of leavened dough cooked by boiling water or steaming as with soup.” It has its word origin in German-derived Yiddish.
Well, that didn’t do it for us. Frankly, we still had plenty of questions.
So, Yahoo News took to the streets of New York City to visit some of its many Yiddish food shops and eateries to see if we could shed some light on the matter. At the very least, we wanted to see a knaidel in person.
“Are you looking for needles?” asked the cook at the Garment District’s Mr. Broadway Kosher Restaurant. “I think you’re in the wrong place.”
At B&H Vegetarian Restaurant, an East Village mecca for Yiddish comfort food, the entire staff was similarly perplexed by our question, “What is a knaidel?” One server, named Alexandra, asked us to spell the word for her.
“No idea,” Alexandra said. “Maybe that’s Ukrainian,” she offered regarding the word’s etymology. “Try Brooklyn—Williamsburg or Greenpoint.”
After being told of Mahankali’s crushing victory in the spelling bee and the word’s newfound significance, Alexandra shrugged. “Good for him, I guess.”
Maybe Alexandra was right, though, and one of Brooklyn’s many Yiddish-speaking communities would have the answer.
According to the good folks at Yelp, South Williamsburg’s Hatzlacha Supermarket would be among the likeliest places to find out. Hatzlacha is a kosher grocery store serving mostly Yiddish-speaking customers, stocked with everything from a fish market and deli to a sizable selection of Jewish CDs. If they didn’t know, who would?
“Can you spell it?” asked one Hatzlacha employee, a woman in her 20s.
“It’s a matzo ball,” she said. “Matzo crumbs, eggs, seltzer, water—it’s just a matzo ball.”
“Like a matzo ball, or is a matzo ball?”
“It’s a matzo ball.”
So the knaidel was just a matzo ball! And what of its sudden fame? Maybe this word would take the world by storm, and delis and Passover Seders everywhere would now serve knaidel, not matzo, soup.
Yahoo News checked in with Peter Shelsky of Shelsky’s Smoked Fish in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Carroll Gardens—whose food is an updated version of traditional smoked fish and appetizers—to get the expert opinion of someone at the cutting edge of New York’s modern Jewish food scene.
When asked about the food's winning role in the spelling bee, Shelsky said he views the knaidel’s rise to prominence as positive.
“Anything that brings attention to the new Jewish food renaissance is fantastic,” he said, adding that he can’t recall when he last used the word.
“I can’t remember the last time I wrote down ‘knaidel,’” Shelsky said. Nor could he be sure of how to spell it. “It’s one of those things like ‘Chanukah.’ There are probably five ways to spell ‘Chanukah,’ and I never stick to one of them.”
There are almost as many ways to spell “knaidel” (variations include "kneidel," "kneydl" and "knaydl"). But the Scripps National Spelling Bee recognizes only one, which Mahankali apparently knew as well as his penultimate word—“tokonoma.”