Magical, mystical tour

Take a spellbinding stroll downtown to find out how central amulets, potions and the Evil Eye have been to Jewish life.

Garlic 311 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Garlic 311
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
You may not believe in the destructive power of horrid little demons and may not have the slightest fear of spirits, but I’ll bet anything you have muttered “tfu tfu” at least once and knocked on wood dozens of times to ward off the terrible Evil Eye.
People have been trying to protect themselves from the forces of evil for millennia. Jews are just as likely to make the attempt as anyone else. Indeed, magical spells, amulets, potions and even curses are mentioned in Jewish sources thousands of years old. Intrigued by its title (“Amulets, Potions and the Evil Eye”), we took a riveting guided tour with Yad Ben-Zvi. It began at the Clal Center on Jaffa Road, which guide Esther Sa’ad told us just had to be cursed.
As every Jerusalemite knows, this eyesore of a building, around for decades, has never really gotten off the ground. And if you look up, you find strange screens on the exterior walls to protect passersby from stones that used to mysteriously fly off the building. And why is the Clal Center so cursed? Because the bones of the Katamon mafia lie beneath the foundations.
Before leading us up Jaffa Road to another “cursed building,” Sa’ad offered our group some background information about demons. Miserable, vengeful beings, demons are people that are in the process of creation just as the Shabbat begins. Work, of course, must come to a screeching halt. As a result, only their top halves are completed. Demons are half human – and half rooster!
Besides demons, there are spirits floating around that can harm us as well. They belong to people who have died but whose souls haven’t yet passed into the next world – either because they haven’t finished a task they were meant to carry out or are seeking an extra opportunity to exact revenge.
Moving up Jaffa Road toward the Mahaneh Yehuda market, we stopped across from the House of the Dead Groom. Today the stunning edifice serves as the Jerusalem District Health Office, but many years ago it belonged to a Christian Arab family. On his wedding day, the groom suddenly dropped dead. Although his parents, delighted with the match, propped him up and the wedding took place as planned, afterwards the house was considered haunted and remained empty for decades.
That may be the reason that when the large, elegant Etz Haim Yeshiva was built across the street, rabbis feared that the land on which it stood might be cursed. Rumor has it that before the official opening, as a measure of protection, the students were told to read Psalms 24 hours a day for three days!
To my delight as a skeptic who knows next to nothing about Jewish mysticism, our tour group was permitted entrance to Yeshivat Hashalom, located in a little lane off Rehov Hamashiah across from the market. Yeshiva head Rabbi David Batzri is a mekubal (someone who deals in Jewish mysticism) and a household name to happily married couples who met after the biannual mass prayer service he conducts at the yeshiva.
Hundreds of singles attend each time, hoping that soon afterwards they will find their soul mates. As I understand it, the idea is to reach the Almighty through fervently read specially prepared prayers. We have heard that people also go to Batzri for help in releasing a dybbuk – a soul stuck in a netherworld that has entered their bodies.
Next we passed through one of Jerusalem’s tiny courtyard neighborhoods, Herodna Houses (Batei Herodna), decorated with bright blue window bars and doors; remains of blue paint can also be seen faintly on the walls. There is a perfectly good explanation for so much blue. It seems that Satan is constantly trying to reach Earth, and when he gets here and sees all the blue, he thinks he made a wrong turn and ended up in heaven. Of course, he then immediately turns around. Residents also have another system of keeping away the Evil Eye: They hang garlic cloves outside their windows.
Moving on, we stopped outside a strange red-brick wall, located at 10 Rehov Schwartz. Buried under a tent-like structure behind the wall are two hassidic rabbis: Avraham Mordechai Alter, third in the Gur Hassidic dynasty, and his son Pinhas Menahem Alter.
Avraham Mordechai Alter, known as the Admor Migur, was born in Poland in 1866 and eventually acquired tens of thousands of followers. In 1940, after fleeing the Nazis, he reached the shores of the Holy Land and made his home in the Gur Hassidic Yeshiva next door to what is now the cemetery.
When he died in 1948, it would have been natural to bury him on the Mount of Olives, but the War of Independence made that impossible. Instead, he was interred in the yeshiva courtyard. His son was buried next to him in 1996.
When we visit a gravesite, most of us automatically pick up a stone and place it on top of the grave. The custom, which originated long ago, was meant to keep animals from digging up a corpse. Here, inside the tent-like structure where the rabbi and his son are buried, the stones were piled really high. And stuck between them were dozens of little notes, each one asking for rabbinical intervention with God.
ON A wall farther down the street, a sign offered pigeons for sale. Did you know that if you have hepatitis, placing a pigeon on your belly button is said to cure you? The bird dies during the process, but it doesn’t seem to suffer. If you’re interested, there is a number to call. And when you do, you tell the person at the other end of the line which color pigeon you need (you have your choice of four).
Across the street and into the Mahaneh Yehuda market we went, passing by the area known as the Iraqi Market. Here, old timers who once sold produce nearby drink arak, play backgammon and gossip.
Eventually we stopped at a very popular stand that sells magic potions – excuse me, drinks – that claim to cure just about anything. A few bicyclers we saw weren’t satisfied with the drinks and had the owner spray them with his special mist. . .
We spotted all kinds of lucky charms in Zichron Tuvia, a 19th-century neighborhood adjacent to the market. They ranged from sideways horseshoes (if the openings are on top or on the bottom, your luck will run out) to the decorative hamsot seen everywhere in Israel. Hamsot are open hand-shaped amulets whose supernatural powers are believed to offer protection against demons, the Evil Eye and a variety of catastrophes. Originating in Arab lands, the hamsa symbolizes the hand of Fatimah, Muhammad’s daughter, and represents the five commandments of Islam. Jews adopted the hamsa centuries ago, and it can be found on Jewish ritual articles like Torah ark curtains and hanukkiot from all over the Middle East.
You may not need a hamsa if all you want to do is to scare off a demon, for they are afraid of loud noises. Sa’ad suggested that this may be one of the reasons for stomping on a glass at weddings – the noise will keep demons away. But if you ever run into one in person, you should break out in an earsplitting cock-a-doodle doo.
SITTING IN the shade of a park in the adjacent Ohel Moshe neighborhood, our guide told us about one particularly pervasive and destructive demon, Lilith. According to ancient tradition, she was Adam’s first wife.
The first Mrs. Adam was a strong-minded feminist who had very definite ideas about her position in the marital bed. After several violent arguments with her husband, Lilith ran away from home. Angels were unable to return her to Eden. Since she would now never have the pleasure of motherhood, she didn’t want any other women to enjoy their babies. Now a combination of demon, goddess and angry spirit, Lilith has been doing her best to take revenge ever since. According to legend, she travels all over the world in search of adorable newborns, she snatches them from their parents and strangles them. That’s why for thousands of years women giving birth have tried all kinds of charms and spells to keep her away. After the baby is born, for instance, they might hang amulets over the cradle for protection, often depicting Lilith in chains or in handcuffs.
Even today, people may pretend that a child is too ugly for Lilith to notice. One of our group confirmed that this ruse is still being used, noting that after her second child was born, her mother-in-law barely looked at the baby before declaring that he was even uglier than her first.
Our final stop was at the extremely simple house of Rabbi Arye Levin, just a minute’s walk away. You may have heard him called the Prisoners’ Rabbi, for along with the sick, downtrodden and hopeless of the city, he also ministered tirelessly to Jews incarcerated in the British Central Prison during the British Mandate – some of them thieves and murderers, but many others members of the Jewish underground.
Reb Arye was not above using Jewish mysticism when it seemed necessary. And it became necessary after the War of Independence ended and Jordan returned several dozen fallen soldiers to Israel. This true story begins after the United Nations vote to partition Palestine, when Arabs laid siege to the four tiny kibbutzim in Gush Etzion. On January 15, 1948, after the situation had become desperate, a platoon of 35 young men from the Palmah set out for the Gush with supplies and weapons for the settlements’ defense.
Their approach was discovered, and during the bitter, uneven battle that followed between the Palmah soldiers and thousands of Arabs, every Jewish soldier was killed. They have gone down in Israeli history as the lamed-heh – the number “35” in Hebrew letters.
When their bodies were returned after the war, 12 of the soldiers were so maimed that they could not be identified. At his suggestion, Reb Arye held a latenight ceremony called goral hagra in his tiny yeshiva. By the light of a few candles, participants randomly opened an ancient Bible 11 different times. Each time, the first passage on the page offered a clue as to the identity of one of the soldiers. With 11 bodies identified, they could then deduce who had been the 12th fallen soldier.
For proof that Jews believe in both white and black magic, visit the extraordinary Angels and Demons exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum, which runs until October. Demand for this exhibition is so great that the museum decided to open on Saturdays during the summer.