Tag Archives: superstition

Pidyon Haben

by Gerard Sarnat (Portola Valley CA)

“Every first-born male among your children, you must redeem.”

— Exodus 13:13

Redemption’s a primitive mitzvah commanded in

the Old Testament to occur on my grandkid’s 30th day

when a Kohen from the priestly patrilineal tree of

Aaron is handed 5 silver shekels by the boy’s father.

While our alternating amused and distraught daughter

nurses off in a dark corner, ultra-orthodox little girls

clothed from head to toe wrap garlic + sugar cubes

in gold lamé lace bags that their subjugated mother

hangs for kenahorah-poo-poo-poo knock on wood

good luck to shoo away devils — after which she checks

that the fancy sheitel covers her wifely shaved skull.

Compared to the newborn’s bris with the mohel

hacking off the infant’s foreskin, this ain’t nothin’.

But having successfully bit my tongue, all said & done

till the next one, these rituals reinforce why I’m an atheist.

Gerard Sarnat has spent time as a physician and social justice protestor in jails,  built and staffed clinics for the marginalized, and spent decades working for Middle East peace. His work, which has appeared in over seventy magazines, including Gargoyle, Lowestoft Chronicle, and The American Journal of Poetry, has recently been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

For more information about Gerard Sarnat, visit his website: GerardSarnat.com.


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Filed under American Jewry, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism, poetry

You Can’t Have Enough Good Luck

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/

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The Pui Factor

by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

Half my family rails against superstition; the other half spits. Pui, pui, pui.

Mention that you are feeling well, thank you, and the spitting starts.

Just say that you had a good day on the stock market and you are bound to get pui, pui, pui.

Announce that your career is on the rise – Pui, pui, pui. Or as my friend says, poo, poo, poo. There are many variations on the spitting theme.  No actual spitting takes place; it is a verbal facsimile. Said three times, it is sure-fire protection against the evil eye, whatever that is, which is then blinded and can’t see you so it can’t do you any harm.

This curious form of behavior was introduced into my family by my grandmother who came from the “old country.” It makes as much sense as any for people who had no real way of protecting themselves from the ravages of religious prejudice. And it gave them a sense of control over an unfathomable universe.

There are other forms of protection in operation against the evil eye. When my sister was born, a red ribbon was tied to her crib so she would be safe when she slept. She never left the house without a red ribbon somewhere on her – in her hair, tied around her wrist, pinned to her underwear. No harm was going to come to her as long as the red bendle was in place!

My sister remembers hunting for the hard candies my mother put under her newborn son’s crib mattress. Mom claimed they kept the demons of nightmares away and brought sweet dreams. My sister said they attracted sweet little bugs. But the baby slept soundly.

My mother never said anything flattering about my sister or me. She said that other people should be the ones to give us a compliment. She didn’t want to give us a kinnehara. And if something good were said, it would be met with a “knayna hara,” meaning without the evil eye. I discovered that it stems from not flaunting your blessings because it might cause pain to someone who is not as fortunate, an honorable notion that morphed into not bringing attention to one’s own fortune, which you never wanted to do, should some evil being hear it and do mischief.

My grandmother, an accomplished seamstress, wouldn’t sew on something a person was wearing unless the person bit on a piece of thread while she was sewing. Traditionally, only a shroud was sewn on a person. Biting on the thread was a way of showing the angel of death that the person was still alive and active.

And should anyone ever spill salt on the table, it was essential to throw a pinch of it over your left shoulder right into the eye of the devil waiting there.

If you say something is good, make sure you knock on wood. This even works when there is no wood available. All you have to do is say the words, “Knock on wood.” For example, “My son is doing well in his new job, knock on wood.” The protection works through intention. Some people have been known to knock on their heads. The symbolism of  “woodenhead” or “blockhead” seems to get translated into the ethereal language with no trouble at all. I’m not sure that this is a Jewish thing but it was so ingrained in my household that I grew up thinking it was.  Like spitting.

Years ago, when we took a family trip to China, my children, husband and I were all confused about a sign that seemed to be everywhere. It was a picture of lips in a circle with a red, diagonal stripe through them. We knew that we were being told not to do something, but what? Our first guess was that it meant no kissing. Perhaps there was a public lewdness law of which we were unaware. Then we thought it might mean no talking. But Chinese cities are not quiet places. The signs were all over including in open spaces like parks and city streets. There was enough conversation going on to tell us that wasn’t the correct interpretation. We finally asked our guide who said it meant no spitting. They meant the real, juicy kind of spitting, not the pui or poo kind. Yet a sign like that might make a good present for the non-spitting relatives.

And there are several. Don’t say, “God bless you” to my father-in-law when he sneezes unless you want an argument. “Superstition!” he sneers. I think a blessing is a fine thing no matter what. So when he’s around, I say it softly.

My husband is a spitter in jest only. He doesn’t take the evil eye protection seriously but saying pui, pui, pui gets the point across. I know that he is aware of the value of something.

I guess I fall somewhere in between. I don’t believe the spitting itself does anything but I do believe the intention is powerful. When a thought is sent out into the universe, it creates energy. So I praise my children a lot for their fine qualities but it is not to the exclusion of others because I say nice things about them, too. I believe in seeing the positive in people whenever possible.

And I celebrate the successes of the people I love, rejoice in their happiness, and applaud their good fortune in whatever form it takes, adding my intention for more of the same. I know that the good things in life come from hard work and connections and courage.

My mother, may she rest in peace, would have loved her great grandson, my sister’s first grandchild, but would not have praised him. My sister calls him the cutest baby in the world. I do, too. Knowing the philosophy of his parents, both rabbis, I am sure they will help him to understand that the beauty of a compassionate soul is more important than physical beauty and that gratitude is greater protection against the vicissitudes of life than all the salt and spit and wood can provide.

And yet, there is something endearing about the pui factor. Maybe it is the amusement that it engenders when it is invoked.

Then again, maybe it’s like chicken soup. It couldn’t hurt.

Ferida Wolff’s newest book of essays, Missed Perceptions: Challenge Your Thoughts Change Your Thinking, is available from Pranava Books, an imprint of Andborough Publishing, a publisher based in North Carolina.

Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. She’s a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, HCI Ultimate series, and Chocolate For a Teen’s Dreams, as well as the author of Listening Outside Listening Inside and The Adventures of Swamp Woman: Menopause Essays on the Edge, and seventeen books for children. She’s written elsewhere online at www.grandparents.com and www.seniorwomen.com. You can find out more about her work at www.feridawolff.com.

This story originally appeared in Midstream in July/August 2007. It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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