Yiddish for Scrabble Wordsmith in S.F. spells it out

You're midway through a friendly game of Scrabble, and your opponent — the wily Methodist shoe salesman from down the street — has you backed into a crossword corner.

Down 75 points, you stare helplessly at your rack of tiles, a motley collection of random vowels and consonants.

Suddenly, through the mental fog, you see it!



You place the "P" on a double-letter square, the word on a triple word score. That's 66 points for the word, 50 points for the bingo (using all seven of your tiles), totaling 116 points.


Red-faced and irate, your opponent immediately barks: "Kreplach? That's not a word! Certainly not a word in the Scrabble dictionary. I challenge."

Smiling, you casually flip through the Scrabble dictionary to Page 311. You clear your throat:

"Ahem…'Kreplach: dumplings filled with meat or cheese.'"

Game, set and match!

Who knew that the smattering of Yiddish vocabulary clanging around in your brain would prove so profitable?

Actually, Andrea Carla Michaels has known for a while. The nationally ranked Scrabble champ has compiled a list of more than 300 Yiddish and Hebrew words, all officially acceptable in Scrabble. With the game more popular than ever, that's a real edge for Scrabble fanatics.

Next week Michaels will share her Scrabble knowledge at an evening seminar, to be held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

Calling her workshop "The Joy of Scrabble," Michaels promises attendees they will improve their scores by 50 to 100 points, in part by learning that secret stash of Hebrew and Yiddish words.

Most Jews already know the terms gonif, drek, goy, oy, shlemiel, and so on. Alternate spellings are legal, too. Meshugah may also be spelled meshugga or meshugge.

For a Scrabble nut like Michaels, compiling the list was a labor of love, although, as she found out, it also turned out to be unnecessary. "I pored through 'The Joys of Yiddish,'" she recalls, "and checked the words against the official Scrabble dictionary. After all that work, I found out there was a guy in Jerusalem who already put the whole thing online."

Even when not playing Scrabble, the Nob Hill resident usually inhabits the world of words. Michaels runs her own product-naming business, Acme Naming, through which she has dreamed up scores of corporate product monikers (Pop-a-razzi, a European popcorn brand, and Coloratura, a hair dye, are two particularly fetching examples).

Michaels grew up in Minnesota, a state not known for having a populous Jewish community ("It was just me, Bob Dylan and the Coen Brothers," she says laughing). As a youth, she was a serious chess player and a dedicated Latin student.

Despite the dearth of Jews in Minnesota, Michaels understood her roots. "I knew I was Jewish," she says. "Even though I have blond hair and blue eyes, I felt different from the other kids, who were all Swedish and Lutheran. When I was 12, my parents sent me to Jewish summer camp; then I joined a temple and was confirmed."

After graduating from Harvard, Michaels moved to Los Angeles in the mid-'80s to break into television. She wrote for shows like "Designing Women" and worked as a stand-up comic. She even served as a chaperone for couples on "The New Dating Game."

But her heart was always in words.

Thus, she became a staff writer on game shows like "Word Play" and "Dick Clark Challengers." When she saw lame-brained contestants walking home with big cash prizes, Michaels jumped into the fray herself.

"I went on 'Jeopardy' and lost to the guy who set what was then the single-day record of $26,000," she says.

Somewhere in the timeline, Michaels discovered the game of Scrabble, and her life changed forever. She joined an L.A. club (which boasted some of the best players in the country) and began clawing her way to the top of the demi-monde of competitive Scrabble.

Once relocated to the Bay Area, she began running in Scrabble circles here, continuing her winning ways and achieving national ranking.

"I loved how, unlike with chess, there's a luck factor built into Scrabble," says Michaels. "I loved making beautiful words, and at first I didn't even care about points and strategy."

Those days are over. She's now at that stratospheric skill level where "your friends won't play you."

Attendees at her upcoming JCC seminar need not be able to play at that level: All are welcome. "I'll teach people about the two- and three-letter words, about rack management and other things that will wildly improve your score. Besides, we have to get new blood on the Scrabble scene. I keep playing the same people over and over again in tournaments."

Why teach at a JCC? Michaels has plenty of good reasons. "There's a disproportionate amount of Jewish Scrabble players out there," she points out. "Scrabble players are word people, and who's more word-oriented than the Jews?"

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.