Kochleffels of the world, unite!

My Midwestern American Methodist wife loves Yiddish. From the day she discovered she was a shiksa, her two favorite words in any language may be tchotchke and zaftig.

She says she likes the onomatopoeiac nature of it: words sound like what they mean. Personally, I think she likes the gentle ruthlessness of Yiddish. Its combination of honesty, irony and the absence of malice taps into three of her favorite things.

IMG_1859We’ve just added a new Yiddish term to our family vocabulary: kochleffel. I encountered the term in a New York Times article last week. The article quoted actor Rob Reiner describing TV trail-blazer Norman Lear as “a ‘kochleffel,’ a Yiddish term meaning ‘pot stirrer.’” I immediately went to my Yiddish mentor – my mother, who was born in New York City but whose native language was Yiddish. She reported: “Koch is to cook. Leffel is a spoon. Referring to a person it is one who can stir things up.  It is a compliment. Applies to one who gets things going.”

I’m fascinated by the gentle, positive tone of kochleffel. We are so focused on conflict and upheaval these days. We have the revived interest in Schumpeter’s creative destruction. We have Clayton Christensen’s disruptive innovation. The Hegelian dialectic requires its conflict between thesis and antithesis before a new synthesis can emerge. Even non-violence and passive resistance are largely defined by the violence and aggression they defy. History seems filled with examples where seemingly some have to tear down before others can rebuild.

Kochleffel is such a different metaphor. In fact, it’s a different world view. It says, stir, not whip. Use a spoon, not a knife. Stir it up, not burn it down. It can be effective; it’s not like someone can come along and unstir the soup. Timing matters too: stirring the soup is a lot more effective when there is some heat applied.

Stir things up without breaking them down. Not a bad change model. If nothing else, a reminder to keep a good spoon in the toolbox, along with the knives, hammers, crowbars and levers.

[Scott Nadler is a Senior Partner at ERM.  To share this post, see additional posts on Scott’s blog or to subscribe please go to snadler.com. Opinions on this site are solely those of Scott Nadler and do not necessarily represent views of those quoted or cited, ERM, its partners or clients.]