Double, double toil and trouble: Exploring modern-day witches

People may buy into magic in private, but many sectors of the modern world don’t tend to embrace such beliefs, viewing them as ridiculous or weak.

Age-old superstitions: Amulets and talismans from the ‘Angels and Demons Jewish Magic Through the Ages’ exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem. (photo credit: BIBLE LANDS MUSEUM))
Age-old superstitions: Amulets and talismans from the ‘Angels and Demons Jewish Magic Through the Ages’ exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum, Jerusalem.
(photo credit: BIBLE LANDS MUSEUM))
Over the past few months, I’ve been researching the presence of magic in Israel. I’ve found, in short, that it is everywhere, in almost every demographic, regardless of religion, age, background or education. After exploring common manifestations of sorcery in two prior articles, such as practices relating to the evil eye and divination, the third and final installment will investigate the main ways that magic is expressed in the modern day, particularly within people or parts of society who consider themselves “immune” to any supernatural influences.
As I was researching this piece, it was superstitions that flew at me from all directions; one should throw away of their nail clippings thoughtfully, lest a pregnant woman step on one which would cause a miscarriage, hiccupping is a sign of lying or having stolen something, flipping a cup will help to find a lost item… I could go on all day. What struck me was that many of those sharing these superstitious practices that dictate aspects of their daily lives were die-hard atheists and skeptics who failed to associate their superstitions with magic.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines superstition as an “excessively credulous belief in and reverence for the supernatural,” or more relevantly, “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences, especially as leading to good or bad luck, or a practice based on such a belief,” drawing a direct link to the supernatural. However, such beliefs/practices seem to become so habitual, that any reasons behind them are long forgotten.
Many of the superstitions I was told about have their source in, surprise, ancient Jewish texts, particularly the Talmud. For instance, placing salt in the corners of rooms and in pockets. This comes from the belief that demons – who cannot withstand the purifying powers of salt – reside in new houses, where they hide in corners of rooms, and also in new clothes, where they conceal themselves in pockets.
Demons are a hot topic in the Talmud; they were widely feared and believed to be the cause of anything from a worn patch of clothing, due to them rubbing alongside you, to epilepsy in future children. The most popular demonic reference is Lilith, whose name is translated as a “night monster/creature/hag/screeching owl.” Consequently, she is often described as a winged mother of demons with long hair. The Babylonian Talmud transforms Lilith into the source of all evil, catastrophe and illegal desire. Tractate Shabbat states, “One may not sleep alone in a house, for Lilith takes hold of whoever sleeps alone in the house.” Hence the need for salt to discourage any undesirable guests.
 ‘Witches’ by Hans Baldung, a woodcut from 1508. ‘Witches’ by Hans Baldung, a woodcut from 1508.
Nowadays, many are unaware of the source of this superstition, vaguely believing salt to ward off “bad luck.” The superstition has also developed, such as into the common belief that throwing salt over your left shoulder will blind the devil (a demon substitute) lurking behind you.
21st-century witches
While this project may not have caused me to blindly believe in magic, it definitely made me aware of coincidence/ preordained events. Working in a cafe one day, the girl at the next table tapped me on the shoulder and said that she couldn’t help but notice what I was working on, and that she knew a lady I had to talk to. It turns out that this stranger’s sister had visited a “witch” while pregnant with her first child. She had me at “witch,” and the next day I chatted with the subject in question – Anat Kedem.
Kedem has had the “gift” of spiritual insight and awareness since childhood.
“When I was a kid, I didn’t know what to do with it, I was very scared,” and so she suppressed her ability to see spirits, ghosts and powers of divination until she most needed them, much later in life. Now, she views these gifts as a responsibility, using them to help those in need.
“I believe that magic is inside a person, I help them reach it by giving them all the tools, support and faith that I can, and working hard.” Kedem believes in a softer sorcery, the magic of empowerment, which speaks to the modern mindset.
For instance, one woman turned to Kedem for spiritual guidance after feeling “stuck” in all aspects of life. “I asked her one simple question: are you wiling to be your whole self, the best you can be? She took a deep breath and agreed. After three minutes, her phone rang with a job offer. She was in shock, for three years she had been applying to jobs with no response.” The position turned out to be wonderful. “It sounds like magic, but all I did was give this girl the tools – not to gain what she wanted, but to stand against her fear and deal with her challenges. How to harness the magic that she had inside.”
A woman aged 48 came to her after eight years of unsuccessful fertility treatments.
“I saw that she could have a child, maybe two, so I gave her intensive treatments.” Kedem was correct in her prediction that the woman would discover she was pregnant at her next scan. Sure enough, down to her very last egg, the woman found out that she was pregnant and today has four-year-old twins. “Miracles do happen, but you have to work very hard and give your whole self to the process. It’s not always easy for people to get there.”
People may buy into magic in private, but many sectors of the modern world don’t tend to embrace such beliefs, viewing them as ridiculous or weak. So, when Oren Zarif, a self-described expert on psycho-kinesis, asked businessman Yitzhak Tshuva to pay him NIS 50 million after helping the mogul in the discovery of the Tamar 1 gas field, Tshuva unsurprisingly denied any knowledge or association with Zarif.
Zarif, a well-known magician/healer, is similar to Kedem in the sense that he helps his patients to heal themselves. His method works with the power of the subconscious, by entering his patients’ thoughts and commanding their mind and body. He claimed that he had met with Tshuva several times, with the paperwork to prove it. Despite this, and the pair featuring in a photograph together where they appear to be pretty chummy, Tshuva’s spokesperson claimed “we do not know who this man is.”
Of course, it’s difficult to come to any conclusions in a case of he said/he said, although if – hypothetically – Tshuva was searching for a touch modern-day magic, Zarif seems to be a good bet; in addition to a variety of outrageous stunts and mind games, including driving a motorcycle around Tel Aviv while blindfolded, Zarif claims to be the great-grandson of Rabbi Pinhas Hacohen, who was believed to resurrect the dead.
Final words
When I first conceptualized this project, it was intended to be a surface-level look at strange beliefs and practices. The more I learned, the more complex this topic became. Both those who “buy into” sorcery and those who practice it have witnessed its success. They not only believe in it, but are deeply invested, both in helping people and being helped. I’ve realized that this belief is derived from a yearning to see these practices succeed. The search for such solutions is rooted in emotions that are so human – fear, hope, desperation, despair. Regardless of personal opinions on the subject, the main lesson I learned is that these practices, and those partaking in them, should not be mocked, but rather empathized with. For all they are doing is searching for guidance, interaction and assistance in – let’s face it – a pretty terrifying world.