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Jewish words

April 10, 2016

Today I went to the stone-setting ceremony for the mother of an old Jewish friend of mine, so of course I had to wear a… what do you call them? Non-Jews call them skull-caps, but no Jew calls them that. The Hebrew word is kippah, but it’s pronounced couple – at least it’s pronounced that way by all the East London Jews I know, but I think that may be just a regional pronunciation. I don’t know if there is a more generally accepted way of saying it. The Yiddish word is yarmulke: but does anyone say that anymore?

I was chatting about this with a friend at the cemetery, and he brought up the fact that there’s no agreed term for the Jewish place of worship, either. There is synagogue, a word of Greek origin, but that’s not much used by Jews themselves. They’d use that term if they were just talking about the building in a general way; but to refer to a place to go to as worshippers, English Jews say shul, which is Yiddish (from the German for school), while American Jews say temple (or they do on Seinfeld, anyway). And in fact temple is the word used in English translations of the Bible, so maybe that’s the most universal term.

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5 Comments
  1. Rachyl permalink

    New York American Jew, here – when I was a kid, we alternated evenly between kippah (pronounced KEE-pah) or yarmulke, but then my family came from eastern Europe and many of them did speak Yiddish as their first language. My cousins’ children, who are getting a modern Jewish education including learning to speak Hebrew, say kippah almost exclusively.

    My parents’ and grandparents’ generation said “temple” to mean synagogue, but I think that’s gone out of fashion to distinguish between our synagogues and the Temple in Jerusalem. The one I grew up attending was “Temple Beth-El” – but as I got older we called it “temple” less and “shul” more.

  2. James Kinase permalink

    Couple? I don’t think so. ‘Kippah’ is not pronounced other than it is spelled. Kippah is the Hebrew word, and ‘koppel’ or ‘kappel’ the Yiddish one – basically a diminutive of the German for cap. My parents used neither word, preferring ‘käpchen’ – a variant diminutive favoured by German Jews.

    • Well, I don’t know where you come from, James; but I can assure you that around these parts (Walthamstow, Wanstead, Woodford, Chingford, Ilford – that is the eastern parts of London that are on the fringes of Essex) the word ‘kippah’ was always pronounced ‘couple’ by Jewish friends of mine when I was at school, and still is by Jews of that generation.

  3. James permalink

    I apologise for the high-handed tone of my previous comment – too easily slipped into online, I fear.

    I come from Willesden, by the way.

    I am sure you are mistaking the substitution of one word for another for a variation in pronunciation.

    Kappel (couple, as you spell it) and kippah are two different words. Take a look at this article:

    http://judaism.about.com/od/judaismbasics/a/What-Is-A-Kippah-Yarmulke.htm

    Perhaps we should stick to talking about beer ads though. We seem to have more common ground there.

    • No worries. Having looked at the link you sent I am sure you are right – the word I heard as ‘couple’ must have been the Yiddish word ‘koppel’.

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