Yiddish Mystery, Solved

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Thursday, I asked Atlantic readers and the good people of the Internet for help with a Yiddish mystery—verily, the best kind of mystery there is. The case: a possibly futzed transliteration of nachora bendl, apparently the name of a Jewish custom of tying red string around the wrist of a newborn to ward off the evil eye. (More on that, from our article on the early infant incubators of Coney Island, here.)

As they are wont to do, the Yiddishists came to the rescue. Eitan Kensky, a staffer at the Yiddish Book Center in Massachusetts, writes that bendl is a diminutive of “band” or “ribbon,” while “nehore” is a way of pronouncing the Hebrew/Yiddish term ayin hara, or evil eye. He found an example of the phrase in a yizkor book for the town of Pintshev, Poland. (Yizkor books are memorials of Eastern European communities destroyed in the Holocaust, mostly compiled by people who had lived in them.) Kensky translates:

Jews weren't the only ones who believed in the Evil Eye; I also knew many Christians who believed in it. People especially shielded children from the Evil Eye. A charm for that was—a red ribbon on the child's arm. And in Pintshev there really were many children with red ribbons on their little hands.

This is an old custom, he added—“certainly not unique to mid-century New York.” Elie Poltorak, a lawyer and graduate of a Lubavitch Yeshiva in New York, elaborates:

Wearing a red string (preferably one that has previously been wound around Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem) on the left wrist is a Jewish folk superstition of unknown origin, thought to protect against the evil eye. It is commonly but mistakenly associated with Kabbalah. Some rabbis condemn this custom, as it appears to be pagan in origin and does not have a source in Torah, while others consider it to be a harmless superstition.

He was somewhat skeptical of the tradition—here’s an article from another Chabad skeptic with more. Whether or not the connection between bendels and Kabbalah is real, the bands are apparently big among current and aspiring Kabbalists. The Forward had a good article in 2004 on bendel fashion among Hollywood’s spiritual-ish set: Madonna! Barbara! Britney!

Another reader, a rabbi, has more on why the word “ne-huh-ruh” might have been transliterated with an extra “ch,” which would have given the word that little hocking a loogie sound in the middle, rather than an aspirated “h” sound. He got our cry for help via his youngest daughter:

When she was a baby, she actually wore one, (in her case, a red headband), at the admonition of a “godmother” who grew up speaking Yiddish and had a better pronunciation of the name of the tradition. I speak both Yiddish and Hebrew, and the term has one word of each. The Hebrew for "No evil eye!" is keyn `ayin hara`.This term has been naturalized into Yiddish, and in Eastern European Yiddish pronunciation, this often slurs into "kaynahora". For it to become "nachora" yet another syllable has been dropped, and the sound that should etymologically be "h" has been confused with the sound "ch" as in German “ich.” Both of these sounds exist in both Hebrew and Yiddish but not in some Slavic languages, so, for example, a Russian speaker would easily confuse them.

Or it could have been a reporter error. Writes another reader:

As you are doubtless aware, Yiddish is a Portmanteau/creole style
language, which mixes Hebrew, MittelhohkDeutsch (late medieval or
'middle high' German) and borrow words from any number of
languages-Russian/Polish/Hungarian/Czech/English, etc. ...

My best guess is that the New Yorker reporter (the New Yorker in the
1930's was THE quintessential WASP publication, the apotheosis of
WASPdom as it were), heard K'nahorah bendel and wrote down Nahora or Nachora or Nakhora Bindel.

Maybe so. For what it’s worth, the writer, A. J. Liebling, was Jewish, but as David Remnick wrote in a retrospective on the writer’s work in 2004, “By the time of Liebling’s birth, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, a century ago—on October 18, 1904—there was no taste for religion in the house; any trace of the shtetl or the Lower East Side had been fairly expunged.”

Another reader adds more on the possible origin of this custom, which may be meant to ward off more than just the evil eye.

I've always heard it tied to warding off Lilith, Adam's first wife.  That tying the red string around the crib or the baby's wrist is to remind Lilith to leave the baby alone as a moment of female solidarity.  If she doesn't see that string, the myth is that Lilith will take your child in the middle of the night out of spite and frustration for being cast away from Adam. The term lullaby comes from this too, which is a form of “Lili Abi” or “Lilith Beware.”

Merriam-Webster has a different explanation for the etymology of “lullaby.” Then again, this is exactly why the mystery of nachora bendl is so interesting: Generations of humans pass down customs, shrouding them in stories. We embrace these little rhythms and habits partly because life is terrifying, especially when it comes to babies who need extra strength for their journey into the world. As one reader writes,

We're grown-up modern sophisticated not-so-much yiddish speakers in my family, and yet on my three kids' bassinet there was a small inconspicuous red string.   'Cause you wouldn't want an evil eye on your lovely 21st century Jewish baby, would you?

Sometimes bits and pieces of these stories get erased, or forgotten, or mistranslated. What’s awesome now, though, is that these customs can be resurfaced / reinvented / retold more easily; one creative transliteration in The New Yorker doesn’t have to be the final rendering. After all, there’s an Internet full of pro and amateur Yiddishists out there, ready to help.