The Matzo Ball Spelling Bee by
(306 Stories)

Prompted By Spelling

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On May 30, 2013  Arvind Mahankali beat out almost 300 other youngsters to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee.   Arvind,  a 13 year-old 8th grader from Bayside,  Queens and son of Indian immigrants,  was the first New York City winner in almost 20 years.   Interested in words and languages since he was in elementary school,  Arvind can speak the Indi tongue Telugu,   Spanish and also some Hindi.

The word Arvind spelled to win the bee was KNAIDEL,   although he admitted he’d never tasted the legendary matzo balls found in Jewish chicken soup.

That spelling – KNAIDEL – is found in Websters Third and thus was the one accepted by Scripps.   But Yiddish mavens rose up to protest the spelling,   and New York’s esteemed YIVO Institute for Jewish Research declared  that KNEYDL is preferred,   based on transliterated Yiddish which in turn is based on the Middle High German KNODEL.

Even the Second Ave Deli weighed in spelling it yet another way – KNEIDEL – on their take-out bags and even on the walls of their restrooms.

Of course Arvind’s win and all the light-hearted linguistic arguments that ensued were reported in the New York Times.  The next day several letters-to-the-editor were published in response to the story including this letter from Yours Truly.

”Knaidel or kneydl?   My Jewish cookbook spells it kneidlach.  Yes,  I know that’s the plural,   but with matzo balls,  who can eat just one?“

– Dana Susan Lehrman

Profile photo of Dana Susan Lehrman Dana Susan Lehrman
This retired librarian loves big city bustle and cozy country weekends, friends and family, good books and theatre, movies and jazz, travel, tennis, Yankee baseball, and writing about life as she sees it on her blog World Thru Brown Eyes!

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Tags: Spelling Bees


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Delicious and funny, Dana. Who would have thought that such a word would be used in such a setting as the final word of the tournament? It is truly a transliteration, even though it made it into a dictionary. I agree, there can be no definitive spelling of such a word, even if Arvind knew how to spell the Webster version of it.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    I love this story, Dana. Made me laugh. We all know there are no correct English spellings for Yiddish words.

  3. Suzy says:

    This is a great story, Dana! I’m impressed that you got a letter published in the NY Times! And I agree with Laurie, there are no correct English spellings for Yiddish words, it’s ridiculous that Scripps would use such a word with so many possible spellings. And now I’m having a craving for matzoh ball soup!

  4. Marian says:

    I’m now starving, Dana, looking at the soup images. It is a surprise that the spelling bee would pick a Yiddish word. Reconstructionists use a transliterated system of Hebrew, which somehow everyone has agreed upon (pretty amazing for Jews (:-)), so I use it read prayers for services because reading in “real” Hebrew is so slow for me. However, I don’t have to write it!

  5. John Shutkin says:

    Just a terrific story, Dana. One that so nicely treats multi-culturalism, particularly in NYC. And, as with other readers, one I’d never heard before. Nor, for that matter, had I ever heard the word “knaidel” — in any spelling. To me, it was always just yummy matzo balls. (Or, for that matter, should that be spelled “matzah balls”?)

    • Thanx John!

      While many commented on the choice of a transliterated Yiddish world (thus with many spellings) as a poor choice for a spelling bee, like you I saw the multicultural lesson and that gave the story substance for me – the sweet kid with the proud Indian immigrant parents and the iconic Jewish chicken soup – and then the light-hearted argument among the Yiddish mavens!

      Happy Hanukkah/Chanukah John!

  6. Love this story, Dee…you really have a knack for the short short story, an art in itself. And your letter to the editor — stellar!

  7. Joe Lowry says:

    It’s nice to be published the New York Times. I have had to settle for the San Francisco Chronicle.
    Also, even though my late wife was Jewish, I could never figure out when Hanukkah (or is it Chanukah) comes every year.

  8. I found this story riveting, Dana! I only knew the word in the plural and wouldn’t have recognized any of those singular spellings. Hidden and to me implied in the shadows of your narrative is another story: how did it come about that so many South Asians of New York City (and other places too) have replaced the Jewish kids who used to move to the head of the class in so many subjects and, in so many school classrooms,?
    Your letter was the ultimate pleasure and a wonderful conclusion to the narrative, of course, almost like, well, adding the perfect matzo ball to the most delicious soup!

    • Thanx Dale! Glad you picked up on the multicultural aspect of my story. Yes the demographics in New York City, and elsewhere, are such that now Asian kids have taken the place of Jewish kids as the strivers and achievers in the city’s public schools. The uncomfortable truth is white flight is at play as as well as movement from public to private schooling, and also the ‘tiger mom’ phenomenon.

      As I wrote John, I love that this sweet Indian kid was spelling an iconic Jewish treat. Hope by now he’s had a bowl!

  9. Wonderful story, Dana. Very, very New York, particularly in the vehemence of New Yorkers’ responses to the “proper” spelling of kneidel/knodel/kneydl. I’m reminded of the sign in the window of Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston: “Send a salami to your boy in the army.” The only way that saying works is if spoken with a New York accent (any borough will do).

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