by Harriet Kessler (Woodbury Heights, NJ)
I’m fond of hamsas. I have a ceramic hamsa on both my office and kitchen walls, and I have several silver hamsa pendants on chains that I wear around my neck. Most were bought during visits to Israel. But the newest, a sterling pendant with emerald, seed pearl and mother-of-pearl decoration, came from a Boulder, CO, store where I shopped while visiting a friend. (It was made in Israel of course.)
“Nice hamsa,” a colleague said the first time I wore it to work. “But I didn’t know you were that religious or superstitious.” The comment surprised me. I thanked him and asked why the pendant led him to question my beliefs, or lack of them.
“Because you never wear a Star of David,” he answered. “And you’re not into mysticism or bubbemeises.”
He was right. Logic pretty much defines me, and I never did wear a star.
Growing up in Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle), I was as proud a Jew as any. But in the early 1940s, anti-Semitism deterred most of us from wearing our Judaism around our necks. When some of my friends started wearing the Star of David shortly after the birth of Israel, I did not. Less a Jewish symbol than a piece of jewelry in my mind, the Star seemed too frivolous for my socialist soul.
Those socialist qualms were gone by the 1980s when my Jewish Federation colleagues took to wearing chai necklaces. A heavy silver chai on a Mariner Chain was my first piece of Jewish jewelry and I wore it constantly until Anatoly Sharansky was freed. The amulet symbolizing solidarity with the refuseniks delighted me.
My hamsa collection started on a trip to Israel in the early 1990s when my travel companion’s Israeli daughter-in-law visited our Tel Aviv hotel one night to give her a hamsa pendant. “It’s an open right palm pointing down,” Orna explained. “We all wear them against the evil eye.”
Taking notice from then on, I saw hamsas around the necks of many young people walking the Tel Aviv streets and knew that I wanted one. When I got to Jerusalem, I made the rounds of the Cardo jewelry stores until I found one that I liked, bought it and put it right on. It’s a pretty little ornament that makes me feel Israeli, so I’ve brought one back from the homeland every visit since.
Because I like to buy Israeli, to support the Jewish state, I’m pleased that Israelis sell other good luck symbols on chains. Should I tire of the hamsa, I can go back to the chai, or wear a mezzuzah, or a menorah, or even a Jewish star.
There are many Jewish amulets (just check the Internet) and perhaps I’ll collect a few of them. Most are attractive, and you can’t have enough good luck.
Harriet Kessler, the former editor of The Jewish Community Voice of Southern New Jersey, edits Attitudes Magazine, and is writing a book about her relationship with her recently deceased younger sister. You can read her previous submission to The Jewish Writing Project here: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2009/01/06/an-act-of-atonement/
One response to “You Can’t Have Enough Good Luck”
This piece really made me smile, and I couldn’t agree more with Harriet: who can’t use some extra mazel?! At our core, we Jews are strict adherents to folk religion (aka superstition, aka bubbemeises). The many different expressions and rituals — whether you you spit in the evil eye in YIddish or Hebrew, whether you wear a hamsa or a chai, whether you say keynahorra or neged ayin hara– are mere variations on a theme. I devoted an entire section of my book to folk religion & speak often on this subject in various regions of the country, to groups of all ages. I have learned about mal de ojo and lucky numbers from Cuban Jews. I have taught about why I never put my shoes on the bed and why I make my kids sit down during Mourner’s Kaddish. No matter how many discussions I lead in any given weekend, the one on bubbemeises is always the favorite!