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Hebrew Hear-Say: Charming habits

There's something magical about the power of superstitions. They can help bind a family together.


There's something magical about the power of superstitions. They can help bind a family together. Most families have their peculiar (in both senses of the word) folk-belief foibles. Among those near and dear to me, the sight of crossed knives cuts deep (the sign of a pending argument) and if you accidentally spill salt, heaven help you if you don't immediately throw a pinch of the salt over your left shoulder to hit the devil in the eye. Never sew clothes you are wearing unless you chew some thread at the same time. Don't put shoes on tables and never leave the front door open for a party (a practice common at shivas, the memorial gatherings held during the first week of mourning). Like a dose of chicken soup for someone suffering from flu, nobody knows if they really help, but these protective practices are accepted Jewish remedies that can't hurt. Israelis, like every other people, have their fair share of superstitions. Unlike the Brits I grew up with, Israelis can pass under ladders without their hearts skipping a beat but the concept of baby showers is still foreign. In fact, baby equipment stores routinely take orders in advance but refrain from delivering crib and changing table etc. until after the mother has safely completed her special delivery. You don't want to tempt fate. Incidentally, "mazal tov," literally "good luck," is used only as "congratulations"; to wish someone luck in an exam or endeavor the word is "behatzlaha." Even most secular Jewish Israelis have a mezuza on their front door - not as a religious reminder of God's presence but as an amulet against the evil eye. And you have to hand it to the hamsa: those five-fingered amulets decorate the walls of almost every home in the country, Jewish or Muslim. The spoken language has its literal equivalent of such signs and wonders. To ward off the evil eye, it is common to include a double or even triple "hamsa" in any sentence in which you could be perceived to be inviting trouble through praise or boasting. This is often accompanied for good measure by an open-handed gesture. Similarly, the Yiddish "kein eine horah" translates into the Hebrew as "bli ayin ha'ra" and tends to grow with the kids: In certain sectors anything concerning the number of offspring, their health, looks or achievements has an instinctive "bli ayin ha'ra" in the sentence. It's not just the province of the proverbial Jewish mother (known as ima polaniya, a "Polish" mother in Hebrew, by the way). In another effort to ward off trouble, many a speaker spits out a "tfu, tfu, tfu" for safe-keeping, as it were. This might be reinforced by knocking on wood, despite the possibility that the habit of touching wood emanates from a simulation of touching the cross. "The kids are doing fine, tfu, tfu, tfu," slips as naturally off the Hebrew-speaking tongue as making the sign of a cross comes to the practicing Catholic. It takes a superhuman effort to constantly ward off supernatural jealous demons, but such practices are more than popular. Even anchors on prime-time news programs have been known to add a "lo aleinu" (literally: "not upon us" but used as "you shouldn't know of it") when discussing deaths and disasters. Has vehalila and its step-sister has veshalom (both used as "God forbid") pepper speech concerning unpleasant eventualities. Court transcripts show even judges and lawyers using them. Phrases like "Heaven forbid" are universal - found throughout time, around the world - but it sometimes seems the Hebrew speaker in particular is always looking out for the evil eye. Even the Talmud warns "One should never open his mouth to Satan." Making vows and curses are considered playing with (hell's) fire. A Hebrew speaker might swear on his life or his eyes, "be'hayyim sheli" or "be'einayim sheli" but he takes into account that he might live to regret it. When a member of the Israeli religious public says "bli neder" (literally "without a vow") it is very different from the English equivalent of "no promises." It means every effort will be made but the speaker wants to leave a get-out in case of some unforeseen circumstance, as in: "I'll come tomorrow, bli neder, and we'll talk then." Obviously a thin line divides superstition from religion. So thin, it might be imperceptible. Often it seems Israelis live more comfortably with folk religion than the institutionalized fare. Residents of a certain neighborhood in Safed, for example, periodically appear in the Hebrew press complaining that their area has literally got a bad name. Homeowners in the Ofer quarter are worried about the exceptionally high suicide rate in the neighborhood named for former housing minister Avraham Ofer, who took his own life. Rabbis and local residents feel the problem needs addressing and one possibility that has been discussed is to add the name "Hai" (life) to the name Ofer in much the same way as an affirmative name is added to those of the very ill. Nobody wants to make any promises about the effectiveness of such a practice (or to open a big mouth to the devil). All we can say is, for those who believe in them, such cures for a curse can work like a charm.

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