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Yiddishkeit

Friday, 31 May, 2019 - 6:22 pm

Most American Jews today may not know what the word “lekach” means. Or “keriah.” Or “holishkes.”

Surprisingly, several outstanding contestants at the Scripps National Spelling Bee knew how to spell these words.

In fact, the first word presented at this year’s bee was, “Yiddishkeit,” correctly spelled by Rishik Gandhasri.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary translates Yiddishkeit as: Jewish character or quality or Jewish way of life or Jewishness.

So, is Yiddishkeit summed up by eating lekach (honey cake) and holishkes (stuffed cabbage)? Or by observing keriah (the ritual of tearing the mourner’s clothes at a funeral)?

I am a Yiddish speaker. I’m not a linguistic expert. I do, however, believe that Yiddishkeit boils down to more than simply eating Jewish foods or being a mentsch.

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In this week’s parsha Bechukotai the Almighty urges us to follow in His ways. The opening words are, “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them.”

This phrase seems redundant. If we observe G-d’s commandments, aren’t we also following His statutes?

Some might facetiously argue that the statutes referred to here are eating gefilte fish, wearing a Star of David necklace, and cracking Jewish jokes.

But, I’d be the first to tell you that you can still be a good Jew without tasting a bite of knaidlach and without a Chai hanging from your neck.  And, it’s one of the reasons for the Torah’s above-noted language.

If G-d simply told us to observe His commandments, we might be tempted to segregate Jewish rituals from Jewish life. Keriah is for observant Jews. Bagels and lox is for all Jews. Kosher is for observant Jews. Chutzpah is for all Jews.

Our over-3000-year-old tradition tells us otherwise. Moshe did not have brisket, matzah balls or gefilte fish. And he never heard Jackie Mason’s humor.

But he was as Jewish as Moses.

By telling us to walk in the ways of G-d’s statutes, the Torah is being clear that Jewishness and Jewish identity is defined by the Torah.

When I’m traveling in Africa and have no access to kugel or kishkeh, I am still able to bond with centuries of Jews as I observe Shabbat with matzah and a can of tuna.

That’s Yiddishkeit.

Merriam-Webster might have an idea of how “Yiddishkeit” is used today. But, we Jews know there’s a lot more to Yiddishkeit than cholent and schmoozing.

 

And, by the way, I do look forward to gribenes on Pesach and cheese blintzes on Shavuot.

But, observing the Seder far outweighs the gribenes. And hearing the Ten Commandments is what Shavuot is all about.

 

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