Khnyok: Yiddish for an Online World

One of the advantages of studying a foreign language is that you will occasionally stumble across a word that you very badly need, but there is no English equivalent. In this instance, surprisingly, there is a Yiddish word that perfectly describes an insidious online trend, even though the word was invented long before the web.

The word is Khnyok, and it is loosely translated as "bigot." But that translation doesn't quite capture the meaning of the word. In Yiddish, it was mostly applied to the Ultra-Orthodox, and Forward writer Philologos gives a better translation as "sanctimonious religious prig."

Of course there were sanctimonious religious prigs before the web. I had a classmate in my Jewish high school, back in the 80s, who declared that I was going to hell because I was never given an Orthodox conversion after I was adopted. These sorts abound in the real world, deciding that Jews are doing Judaism wrong, or aren't Jews at all, as though there are so many Jews in this world that we need to exclude some if they don't fulfill the minutiae of our particular denomination's idiosyncratic rules.

But they have been given what seems to be new life and new purpose with the advent of the web, and, especially, with the development of comments sections in online publications or social media.

Everybody has their own version. If I can mention my Irish heritage again, there is a particular phenomenon on Irish websites where, whenever the subject of the Irish-American experience comes up, some irritable native of Ireland will pop in. "Aw, yez ain't but Irish at all, yanks!" they declare, and then proceed to demonstrate a near-total misunderstanding of ethnicity and the American experience. I don't know why they go to an Irish-American website to shout down the Irish-American experience, but there they are, day in and day out, typing frantically away in order to make sure an Irish-American doesn't accidentally mistake themselves for a citizen of Ireland.

Jewish websites have their own characters, khnyoks all. There is the religious prig and the political prig, and the two have almost nothing in common but for an unshakable belief that there is no place for pluralism in Judaism.

The religious prig is exceptionally maddening. In any discussion about Jewish identity, they will show up to sagely tell us that there is only one definition of a Jew, and that is someone who either has a Jewish mother or was converted in an Orthodox ceremony. When reminded that Reform Judaism accepts people as being Jewish if they have either a Jewish mother or father, and has since 1983, an opinion shared by Reconstructionist Judaism, and Lembda and Ethiopian Jews have always based Jewish identity on the religion of the father, they will merely repeat themselves, as of no other opinion matters or even exists.

They often deny that there have ever been disagreements in Judaism, as though the practice of Judaism has been identical, unabated, since the days of Abraham. Their's is a world in which there were never Pharisees and Sadducees, there were never Hasidim and Misnagdim, there were never disagreements between the Jews of Eastern and Western Europe, and there have never been minority movements in Judaism like the Samaritans and the Karites. No, there was the Torah, the Talmud, and one interpretation of each, and everything else is just some bizarre heretical chirping that can be safely ignored.

Yet this sort of khnyok  tends to seek out general Jewish websites, where the audience is likely to be made up of secular Jews, Reform Jews, atheist Jews, Conservative Jews, and the like. One can only assume the reason for this is so that the khnyok can comfortably crow his or her narrow-mindedness in front of people who do not agree with him, ignore their responses, and take some perverse pleasure in having been so very right in front of so many people who are wrong. There's a sort of austerity to this priggishness that I can't help but respect. It is a priggishness that requires but will not acknowledge an audience of non-prigs.

The political khnyoks are more common and are entirely unsurprising. They are just the Jewish versions of the shrill single-issue voters, extremist bullies, and nattering dimwits that fill every single public forum on the web, and the only thing novel about them is that their concerns are so specifically Jewish.

They will declare the opposition to be full of antisemites and likely worse that Hitler. They will insist that we must base every political decision around what is best for Israel, and what is best for Israel is always whatever candidate they currently support. They insist that any other political opinion is likely to spark an American Holocaust, and like to remind us that the German Jews also felt assimilated and safe in Germany before the rise of Hitler, never mind that this is not true. (There isn't the time to detail the entire history of the Jews of Germany; suffice it to say that from the 1819 Hep-Hep riots on, there was never a moment when German Jews didn't experience ongoing and often official antisemtism, including a 1916 census intended to prove that there was a lack of patriotism among Jews.)

There is a third group I should mention: The people who have a problem with Jews. Some of them are virulent antisemites who think a Facebook post is a great place to remind people of the evils of the Jews. Some are anti-circumcision activists who will take every opportunity to remind the world that Jews mutilate and perhaps sexually abuse their children with the circumcision ritual. Some are anti-Israel activists who can't let an opportunity pass to tell Jews that they are supporting a genocidal country. These sorts of comments, from gentiles who are critical of Jews, tend to get deleted, understandably. The others, from Jews who go online to abuse other Jews, tend not to, which I have a harder time understanding.

I feel about our khnyoks the way I feel about all the people who make a horrific, alienating mess of the Internet -- that they could easily be resolved with some minimal moderation. Nobody has the inalienable right to comment on every single Facebook page or online forum, and the people who run those pages and forums are within their rights to establish and enforce standards of non-abusive interaction. Failing that, web publishing tends to act as a sort of setup for a punchline that consists of contempt, abuse, bullying, and, worst of all, tedious and useless bickering.

Sometimes it seems like the web consists of two things: cats and khnyoks. We could do without one of these two.