Help! We Don't Speak Yiddish!

Today, a great moment in the long history of debates over Yiddish transliteration at The Atlantic.* In this story from our Health section about the history of the preemie babies of Coney Island, the writer Elizabeth Yuko describes a tradition among some Orthodox Jews in mid-century New York: tying a red string to the wrist of newborns in order to ward off the so-called evil eye. She calls this nachora bendel, a term presumably sourced from a 1939 New Yorker article that covered the same preemie experiment.

The thing is, this term is pretty Google suspicious. It only returns eight total results; only three of them actually use the direct term nachora bendel; one of them is that New Yorker article, and the other two refer back to that New Yorker article. This is not dispositive evidence that nachora bendel is not the right name of this tradition, nor, obviously, that the tradition didn’t or doesn’t exist. But it is fairly solid evidence that something’s off with the transliteration here.  

The first question we asked was: What language is this? Yoni was pretty sure it’s not Hebrew; his best guess was that it’s Yiddish. We found a Yiddish word close to bendel, although under a slightly different spelling: The authoritative wordhippo.com says bindl means “shackle,” which makes sense in context (red string around wrist). But as for nachora, we’ve got nothing. Oy.**

Can anyone help? We’re looking for scholars of mid-century American Judaism; Kabbalah experts (another not-so-loose guess from the Internet—this is related to a Jewish mystical tradition); Yiddishists; or possibly retired New Yorker factcheckers. Hit us up at hello@theatlantic.com; bonus points if your email is in Yiddish. (Except, actually please, don’t—see headline.) Update: Mystery solved by readers.


* “Long history” is admittedly somewhat interpretative, and by “somewhat interpretive,” I should say that I have no concrete evidence that The Atlantic has ever been all that preoccupied with Yiddish transliteration. (Indeed, certain evidence in our illustrious history suggests otherwise.) Yet another question worth exploring: a history of Yiddishist thought at The Atlantic.

** Sorry not sorry.