Jews are not supposed to be superstitious. Huh? Here I am to report that we certainly are, even though intellectually and religiously we do know better.
So how is it that when I visit the Kotel, the beggar ladies give me a red thread in exchange for a shekel for tzedakah? Is it to ward off the evil eye? At the Kotel no less! Inches from the wall itself, can’t my fervent prayers do better than the red thread? I guess not.
And does our speech have power to do us harm?
When my friend Ruth turned 60 she hosted a fancy women’s brunch to celebrate. There were poems and speeches of praise, in addition to lots of great food. And then, as is typical, the guest of honor spoke. And, wow, did she ever give herself the evil eye. In front of all these impotent women, and also in front of whomever is the being behind the evil eye, she proclaimed her good luck. She told us how healthy she is and how lucky that all is well and good in her life. I, undoubtedly the most superstitious person in the world, literally screamed at her after the party. “How could you say such things?” She didn’t understand until a week later when she was diagnosed with advanced colon cancer. Did her remarks give her the cancer? Her doctor says no. The cancer was festering for years according to the renowned professor. Me? I’m not so sure!
My grandchildren love to tease me and make me cringe. They’re so capable of getting a reaction from me so they’ll say dumb stuff like, “I never get the flu.” For example. I can’t repeat some of the more pungent remarks since I’m too superstitious! I just can’t help it.
I was raised that way. My mother (but not my father) and her father were obscenely superstitious. There was a superstition for everything. I learned the actions but not necessarily the reasons. So I know not to put keys on the table. I have no idea why but I don’t put keys on the table.
I know never to sing in the morning or whistle at night. There must be some reason. And why do you throw salt over your head if you sneeze while discussing someone who is dead? Very strange stuff.
When my grandfather was in his late 60’s and doing all the handyman work at our Catskills kuchalein, one of our guests, a rather religious Jewish woman named Raizel, got angry with him. So she cursed him…..something else that Jews are not supposed to do. Something very linked to superstition of course. The curse was that he should become crippled. Not the usual curse at all. He, being a superstitious fellow who believed in the very bad power of very bad words aggravated himself about the incident for a while and then he gradually forgot about it. And then, one fall day (and I mean that quite literally I’m sorry to say) he was in the NYC subway when a stranger accidentally knocked him to the hard pavement. He was able to pick himself up and continue on to his journey to visit his son, my uncle, who was a dentist in Queens. By the time he arrived he was in severe pain and my uncle took him to a local emergency room. He had a broken hip. After surgery and rehab, he remained crippled for the rest of his life.
Did you ever notice when you’re cruising along the highway and you say, “Wonderful. There’s no traffic.” Boom. What happens next? You knew it! Suddenly you’re surrounded and boxed in by terrible unrelenting traffic. If only you hadn’t said anything!
I know. I know. This is ridiculous. How can what you say or do, like singing in the morning, impact your life? It’s really not Jewish. We Jews have prayers proclaiming our happiness. Ever chant Ashrei? Is that an ayin ha ra? Or a kennahurra? Why do we even have these phrases if we don’t believe in the evil eye? I surely don’t know.
So, if you ask a Chasid how many children do you have? Do you get an answer? A direct, nonambiguous answer? No. Why not? Superstition rears its head once more.
I’m not arguing for superstition. For goodness sake, I’m an educated mature woman. I’d even live on the 13th floor, which happens to be missing in many many apartment buildings in New York and elsewhere. What I didn’t inherit from my mother is a fear of black cats crossing my path, or the number 13. Those were not part of her bubameises, so they’re not part of mine. And although she was also an educated woman, she was victimized by the nonsense which invaded my life. Like the Chasid, I just can’t help it. I’m going to try! Pooh pooh pooh!