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June 10, 1988 - Image 49

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-06-10

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

M

Art By Anne Zimmerman

Knock
On
Wood

Scaring off mischief-making
spirits. Foiling the evil eye
Many people practice
superstitions, but don't want to
admit it.

CAROL COTT GROSS

Special to The Jewish News

y mother, she should
live and be well,
knocks so much wood,
her nickname is The Wood-
pecker. And if she doesn't tap,
tap, tap when someone in the
family sounds too cocky
about his health or happiness,
she makes genteel spitting
sounds — poo, poo — to scare
off any mischief-making
spirits who might be listening
to the conversation. She at-
taches a red "kineahora" bow
to new possessions, like a car
or baby carriage, as a protec-
tive device against the evil
eye. (Kineahora is Yiddish for
"I call no evil eye.")
But if someone accuses my
mother of being super-
stitious, she hotly denies it:
"Superstitious? Who me?
Your grandmother, she should
rest in peace, was
superstitious. I'm just keep-
ing a low profile."
Like my mother, I keep a
low profile and try not to
sound too sure of myself. I
don't make long-range plans
without tacking on a "Please
God" or an "Alevai" ("God
willing"). But I'm certainly
not as superstitious as my
mother. I don't throw salt
over my left shoulder when I
spill it.
"People don't readily admit
to being superstitious
because it is a pejorative term
(in our society) for an irra-
tional or unscientific ritual or
practice," says Dr. Alan Fisk,
a psychologist-anthropologist
at the University of Pennsyl-
vania. Fisk makes the distinc-
tion between a superstition
that wards off bad luck, i.e.
the red bow, and one that
brings good luck, i.e. finding
a penny heads-up on the
sidewalk, putting it in a shoe
and "walking on good luck."
Contrary to popular opin-
ion, superstitions are not
necessarily born from ig-
norance, but from fear and
insecurity. "Evil eye" super-
stitions developed in China,
South America, Europe and
the Middle East in ancient
times because people believed
that the world was just: if
anyone had too much good
luck, the evil eye would serve
as an equalizer, taking some
of the excess happiness away.
Sometimes we wish aloud
for something negative, while
hoping silently for just the
opposite: in show business,
they say, "Break a leg!"
For Jews who have made it
in America, superstitions can
be nostalgic links to our
heritage and to the Old Coun-
try. A superstition can be a

bubbe mayse, a grand-
mother's tale passed to the
next generation, or a newly
minted game devised by kids.
For example, some high
school students play a
graduation game with their
school ring. If a student is
graduating in 1988, the ring
must be twisted 88 times to
ensure that he will graduate
on time.
Essentially, superstitions
were developed to control an
uncontrollable future. Jews,
who as a people have had lit-
tle say over their destiny,
adopted superstitions to
make the world seem less

son. lb subdue the celebra-
tion, he breaks an expensive
cup in front of the guests.
Jacob Z. Lauterbach, author
of Studies in Jewish Law,
Custom and Folklore, writes
that breaking a precious cup
is an ancient heathen practice
based on the belief that a
jealous demon who sees a
glass being broken at a wed-
ding will think the event is
unhappy and thus make no
more trouble for the bride and
groom.
Today, when we break the
glass, we are supposed to
recall the destruction of the
Thmple in Jerusalem.

precarious. They usually
developed around milestones
like birth, marriage and
death.
Jewish folklore has always
been full of tales about people
trying to trick or scare off evil
spirits. Contemporary Jewish
writers like I.B. Singer and
Bernard Malamud pepper
their stories with demons and
devils. Their writing reflects
the continuing fascination
and fear Jews have always
had for supernatural beings.
Sometimes, a superstition
becomes so engrained in a
culture, the reason behind the
ritual is forgotten or changed.
For instance, it is customary
to break a glass at a Jewish
wedding. The earliest refer-
ence to this practice is a
Talmudic tale of a father who
gives a wedding feast for his

In much the same way, the
Church could not stamp out
the ancient practice of knock-
ing wood, so a Christian con-
notation was supplied: when
a good Christian knocks
wood, he is supposed to recall
the humility of Jesus who
died on a wooden cross. He is
not supposed to be scaring off
jealous spirits, whom the
Greeks believed lived in trees.

The following is a short list
of cycle-of-life superstitions
that are familiar to most
Jews, but are not necessarily
of Jewish origin. Many come
from China, Italy, Africa or
Asia.
Pregnancy: Don't visit the
zoo or circus when pregnant
because an expectant mother
might be frightened by the
wild animals and "freaks"

-

THE DETROIT JEWISH NEWS

49

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