Double double toil and trouble

A recent exhibition in Jerusalem explores the ways in which even secular Israelis are turning to amulets, astrology, and the like- especially in times of crisis.

Kabbala Manuscript (photo credit: Courtesy Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem)
Kabbala Manuscript
(photo credit: Courtesy Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem)
THREE BOWLS – ONE LARGE, ONE medium, and one small – are buried under the threshold of the entrance. More pots hang facing outwards on a nearby wall; the insides of the pots are covered with Hebrew inscriptions, the letters spiraling from the center of the bowl to its edges.
“This is the first thing that people would do to protect themselves,” Sarah Gabay-Friedson, a docent at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, tells The Jerusalem Report as she walks through the recently concluded exhibition “Angels and Demons” at the museum.
“The purpose of magical inscriptions inside the pots is to attract the bad spirits,” Gabay-Friedson explains.
“Once the spirits were inside, they would be busy reading what is written there. The residents of the house would immediately turn the pots upside down, catching the bad spirits inside and burying them in the earth on the threshold of their home. That way, they would prevent the spirits from coming into the house and harming anyone living there.”
The “Angels and Demons” exhibition was a huge success, attracting some 200,000 visitors, the largest number of visitors the museum has ever had for any single exhibition, according to Amanda Weiss, museum director.
The exhibition, according to its promotional material, examined the origins and development of magic in Judaism from the First Temple period to the present day by focusing on beliefs, customs and the practical use of magic objects in daily Jewish life. The artifacts were on loan from the Golan Archeological Museum, The Institute of Archeology of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, The Israel Antiquities Authority and private collectors.
Museum officials had anticipated that the exhibition would be a good draw, since throughout Israel, increasingly large sectors of the public are attracted to Jewish mysticism. Although hard data are unavailable, the anecdotal evidence is compelling. Kabbala lessons have been popular for years and there is even a Kabbala cable TV channel. Mainstream bookstores offer shelves full of books dealing with Jewish mysticism and magic. Lectures dealing with the occult, held in large, mainstream venues in big cities and small towns, are standing room only. People from all walks of life visit sages’ tombs in Galilee or in the south, hoping to be blessed or to find relief from pain and sorrow. Men and women purporting to heal the sick and ease bodily and emotional pain advertise regularly in the mainstream Hebrew and English press. And even popular singer Harel Skaat, Israel’s singer at the 2010 Eurovision Song Contest, showed off an amulet for good luck that he wore during his performance. (He didn’t win.)
VISITORS TO THE EXTENSIVE exhibition, which filled nearly half of the lower story of the museum, viewed amulets as well as scrolls decorated with inscriptions including names of powerful angels for protection from the evil eye, sickness and death, failure in business, mighty enemies and other dangers.
On display were dozens of exquisitely decorated knives in various sizes, made of silver or gold, along with amulets and scrolls of parchment delicately decorated with inscriptions and drawings, miniatures and replicas of swords from Jewish communities throughout the world. There were also many palm-shaped hamsas, the amulets used widely in the Middle East and North Africa, depicting the hand of Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and serving as a sort of “stop sign” aimed at warding off evil. An entire section was devoted to superstitions regarding the protection of mothers and infants.
Biblical figures featured prominently, including Adam and Eve, the three Patriarchs and three of the four Matriarchs.
(The figure of Rachel, the fourth matriarch, is rarely invoked, since, in the biblical tale, she had difficulty conceiving and died giving birth to Benjamin.) A scroll from Yanina in ancient Greece displayed the names of Moses and Zipporah. “This is a very rare mention of Moses’s wife,” Gabay- Friedson notes, and then points to the warning written on the scroll: It was to be hung on the wall for 40 days, during which the mother and the newborn were to remain safely in the house.
In the center of the display, within a separate glass case, was a rich, elegant shawl embroidered with Hebrew inscriptions and the names of protecting angels. It had once belonged to a young mother.
From there, the exhibition continued on to amulets and talismans for protection and help for other personal needs and daily life, including Jewish good-luck charms for success in business and for protection on the road, as well as objects to ward off the evil eye and mighty enemies. Brief videos placed throughout explained about folk beliefs and how amulets were made at different times and places, providing information about the history of Jewish magic and mysticism. Avideo in the center of the exhibition showed the making of the magic artifacts throughout history, including currently.
“It was crucial in my eyes that people would see with their own eyes that these practices are still alive,” explains director Weiss.
In some scrolls and amulets, alongside the names of the protecting angels were biblical verses warning against the use of magic and amulets or going to fortune tellers. Indeed, in Exodus 22:17, the Torah warns, “You shall not allow a sorceress to live,” while in Deuteronomy 18:10-11, it is written, “There must not be found among you anyone that… uses divination, a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer.”
Yet there seemed to be no contradiction in the eyes of the users and believers. This may be, experts say, because Judaism has traditionally differentiated between so-called “black magic,” or witchcraft, and “white magic,” used, for example, for defending oneself from evil powers and the damage they seek to cause. And indeed, throughout the ages, there has always been, alongside the official Judaism, an underground of “folk religion,” based on mysticism and magic, often involving invoking the powerful name of God to command intermediary beings, such as angels and demons, to do the will of the practitioner.
“These scrolls,” says Gabay-Friedson, “provide us, centuries later, with information about the Jewish communities – they are in fact the official documents of the community, such as [listings] of the babies born.”
THE EXHIBITION KICKED OFF with a workshop featuring the well known Itzhak Mizrahi, who makes his living selling amulets and potions to a devoted following. Hundreds of people attentively watched and listened as Mizrahi explained how his amulets work and detailed which amulet should be used for what purpose. At the end of the lecture, the audience, made up mostly of middle-aged, well-dressed women, asked numerous questions and were then invited to make their own amulets, following Mizrahi’s precise instructions.
Says Professor Moshe Idel, a well-known scholar in Kabbala and Jewish mysticism from the Hebrew University and the Shalom Hartman Institute, “We do not use rationalism everywhere all the time, and when rationalism and logic do not provide answers to our anguish, we look elsewhere.”
Idel continues: “There are many charlatans in this field, but they are responding to a genuine and profound need. When an individual is in a difficult situation, in anguish, and feels he or she has no choice, it does not matter how educated, religious or rationalist they are – they will go to an amulet maker or to ‘magicons’ or anyone like that.”
Movements such as the Enlightenment, rationalism, secularism and Zionism, Idel says, “gave us the feeling that we had solutions for every problem, and then, suddenly, we see that this is not exactly so. We realize that these ideologies are not strong and cannot protect us.
In a way, these ‘gods’ have deceived us, because they have not brought us the happiness and the security that we seek. Even secular people are looking for any thin thread to hold on to – not because they have stopped being secular but because they just need something more. So people may feel the need to get back to the old, comforting beliefs and the support provided by magic and amulets.”
Well-known personalities promote the mystical, such as former minister of foreign affairs Silvan Shalom’s wife, Judy Shalom- Nir-Moses, who hosts astrologers and promoters of the occult on her popular talk show on Israeli public radio.
Idel sighs a little and adds, with an ironic smile, “I know that politicians, even army officers, consult some of these [occult practitioners].
I am very concerned. I’m talking about prime ministers. I know that some [public officials] fly to meetings abroad with their own fortune teller.
“But actually, it’s not so extraordinary – this has been the reality throughout history,” Idel continues. He notes that in the Middle Ages, the renowned scholar Maimonides, the Rambam, who combined rationalism with profound religious belief, strongly opposed any sort of magic or mysticism. But the Rambam, he says, “was one of the few” and his protestations reveal how prevalent the practices were.
Idel then adds, “You cannot laugh at or ridicule faith. After all, there is no real difference between a belief in these occult things and believing in God. We usually draw a line between something we consider ‘serious and respectable’ and magic. But is there such a line?” Rachel Elior, professor of Jewish thought at the Hebrew University, agrees. “If we are speaking solely in terms of rationality, is it more rational to address a prayer to a God you have never seen than it is to go to a magician who will listen emphatically, tell you that he will pray for you, and write an amulet especially for you?” asks Elior.
“And what is the difference, in terms of rationality, between a magician and a psychologist who listens to what weighs heavily on your soul?” Poet and Jewish literature scholar Hava Pinchas-Cohen put it into perspective even further.
“We, secular Zionist Israeli families, were not raised on these superstitions. Or so we thought. We did not know that our grandmothers would secretly hide an amulet under the sheets of our beds to protect us,” says Pinchas-Cohen in an interview with The Report. “Today, we face a profound and painful crisis, because we have come to realize that rationalism cannot heal all our anxieties and fears,” she adds. “And New Age thinking, which is so popular today, also gives credit to the mystical and the occult. So we are seeing a renewal of old rituals that give expression to human emotional needs.”
“I HAVE BEEN IN THIS FOR 36 years,” Mizrahi, in his early 40s, tells The Report. Aplump man of medium height, his long dark hair is pulled back in a ponytail. “I am the fourth generation in a family from Morocco. I see that more and more people are coming to me, since they do not obtain answers to their fears, to their anguish.”
Mizrahi says he was not surprised by success of this exhibition “nor by the growing number of people rushing to me or other amulet makers. Seven out of 10 people who come to me come because of problems in their relationships. They also come for issues of money, health, including fertility, and so on.”
Among his clients, he continues, are “psychologists and scientists and many others who have not received answers in the rationalist world and come to me because they need hope. They need solutions. Not all of them are Jewish. I even have clients in Sweden and Morocco, as well as many Palestinians.”
But while visitors may have been motivated to view the exhibition by belief or by curiosity, the exhibition posed a real challenge to the rationality of the organizing staff.
“After a difficult year, we have a wonderful feeling we managed to overcome the spiritual world of magic and even won our case,” says Dr. Filip Vukosavovic, chief curator of the museum and of this particular exhibition.
In December 2009, less than five months before the scheduled opening, Vukosavovic explains, his assistant was suddenly hospitalized and had to withdraw from the staff; a few days later, another assistant broke her leg and was also forced to withdraw from the already small staff. Then, the first assistant’s father was hospitalized, and a few days later, Vukosavovic’s own father was hospitalized in his native country, Montenegro. Two weeks before the opening, the two fathers died within a few days of each other, while a third assistant began to experience medical difficulties in her pregnancy.
“Do I believe in magic and in this occult world?” asks Vukosavovic rhetorically, with more than a trace of irony. “If I had an amulet that could have helped my assistant’s pregnancy or my own father, I would surely have used it, my academic training notwithstanding.Because, let’s be honest, when it comes to our loved ones, our reactions are different. See what is happening around us – despite the developed technology and the modern medicine, magic still exists and people make use of it.
“Nevertheless,” he continues, “a few days after the opening, I received my PhD, my first assistant received her MA, and a third assistant gave birth to a healthy baby boy. Not to mention that the exhibition was a terrific success.”
All of which, he says, is proof that there is more than a little superstition at play here. “So after all and despite the occult powers,” he quips, “the museum and academic standards won.”