It’s not necessarily in the stars

Greer Fay Cashman puts her cards on the table about her fortune-telling experiences.

An example of a tea-leaf reading showing a dog and a bird on the side of the cup (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
An example of a tea-leaf reading showing a dog and a bird on the side of the cup
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘Everyone is born with extrasensory perception, but not everyone develops it,” Fiona McCallum, one of the most celebrated of Australian clairvoyants, told me in Sydney many years ago.
McCallum was a genuine clairvoyant in that she didn’t require intermediaries such as cards, crystal balls, coffee grounds or tea leaves to assess a person’s character and what may be troubling that individual. She could also predict the future, which she did with amazing accuracy, and didn’t get offended by skeptics.
Once I said to her, “Suppose you told me I was going to be seriously injured or killed in a motor accident, and I decided never to leave the house again. What would that do to your prediction?” Without missing a beat she replied, “Have you never heard of a truck crashing into the wall of a building? You might be sitting on the other side of the wall.”
I was aware to some extent of my own ESP, or some might call it psychic ability. I loved to visit coffee readers, palmists and card readers to watch their techniques and to work out who was faking and who was real.
It all started when I was about four years old. I would go somewhere with my mother, and as we entered the room, I would tell her what someone in that room was about to say. Although my mother also had psychic tendencies, the last thing she wanted to do was to encourage her little girl in that direction because she knew that if she did, she would wind up with a precocious little monster on her hands.
Somehow she weaned me away from that. When I was in my mid-teens, I went to see a show conducted by a man whose stage name was Franquin. He was the most famous of Australian hypnotists, and during the show he called for volunteers to come up on stage and be hypnotized, after which he promised them that they would act on his command and do things they would never have believed themselves capable of doing. Naturally, yours truly ran up to the stage to volunteer. Franquin took one look at me and said, “No one can hypnotize you.” Then he added in almost a whisper, “Be careful.”
Fast forward a little under a decade. My boyfriend at the time had a somewhat aggressive sister, who one day showed up with a pack of cards and demanded that I read her fortune. “But I don’t know how,” I protested. However, she was determined. She had seen guidelines for card reading in a women’s magazine, which she had brought with her, and told me I could look up the instructions as I went along. There was no point in telling her that looking up what each card signified would break whatever karma there was between us. Surprisingly, I gave her a fairly accurate reading. This, of course, spurred my interest in reading cards – not tarot, just regular cards. After a while, I became quite proficient.
The magazine then published an article on reading coffee grounds (known as tasseography; tea leaves and wine sediments may also be used for divination), which to me was far more interesting than reading cards. It didn’t take much to figure out that reading coffee grounds is not much different than doing a Rorschach test.
For those who’ve never had their coffee read or haven’t done it themselves, the rules are simple. Prepare Turkish coffee according to your liking. Pour it into a demitasse, not a glass, and drink down as far as the dregs. Place the saucer over the cup. Gently swirl the cup around three times, then with the saucer still in place, turn the cup upside down and let it sit in the saucer for 10 to 15 minutes. No one other than the person who drank from it is permitted to touch it before the reader inspects it. The reader then looks for images in the pattern left by the coffee and begins to interpret them. For instance, a circle of coffee around the upper part of the cup is usually interpreted as a long journey. So is an image that looks like a camel.
Wax reading works on a similar principle. Take a thick candle, put it in a pot and heat it over a low flame until the wax is melted. Pour the wax into a dish of cold water and give it a splash to prevent the top from becoming too brittle. Within seconds, you will have a beautiful abstract wax sculpture. Lift it out of the water very gently and place it on the table. The wax will contain many images, and it is up to the reader to interpret them.
Prior to making aliya, I went from my native Melbourne to Sydney, where I spent two years and lived with a family that had gone from being secular to Chabad. However, their home remained open to all and sundry, not just to like-minded people or people of the same faith. One day, a Zoroastrian came to dinner. His specialty was iridology, which is the reading of the iris of the eye, often used to detect illness or things related to illness. I had a rather nasty oversized scar resulting from an emergency appendix operation. The scar had been there for several years. The man not only described it but told me that in time it would fade entirely – and it has. My hostess had a whole range of illnesses, which she successfully hid beneath an authoritarian personality. But her Zoroastrian guest detected them all just by looking at her iris.
While I was in Melbourne, I became interested in palmistry. Almost every time anyone hears that someone is a palmist, they automatically stick out their hands. A word of caution: Anyone who claims to be able to read a bare palm is a fraud. There are countless tiny lines in the hand, all of which affect the findings by the reader. For a proper palm reading, it is essential to make an ink or paint imprint of the palm, then wait for it dry. Once it is dry, it can be read.
Also in Melbourne, I came across a woman who could read flowers. She had an open salon every week, and people could come without making an appointment. All that was required was that they pick a flower from a garden or a bush and place it in a brown paper bag. There was a big basket at the entrance to the salon, and people who wanted to make contact with someone in the next world dropped their unmarked brown bags with the flowers inside into the basket. The clairvoyant would then pick up bags at random and call out a name.
The person whose name it was would indicate his or her presence. The clairvoyant would then tell the person the name of the deceased individual on the other side who was calling to tell him/her whatever message it was that she had been chosen to impart. She was spot-on all the way. It was uncanny.
My friend Stella, an artist and child Holocaust survivor, was also into the supernatural. One evening, the two of us sat down with a Ouija board to see if there were any messages for us from the other side. A Ouija board has numbers, letters and symbols. A glass is placed upside down on the center of the board, and each participant puts his/her index finger on the base of the glass. The combined body heat causes the glass to move across the board, spelling out a message.
At first, none of it made sense to us until we realized that the words being formed were not in English. Stella came from Poland, and although I was born in Australia, the first language I spoke was Polish because Polish and Yiddish were the languages we spoke at home. The upshot was that I received a message from my father’s youngest brother who had been murdered in the Holocaust. But he did not identify himself by his proper name. He identified himself by his nickname, which to the best of my knowledge I had never heard.
As my father had died a week before my 11th birthday, the only person I could ask was my mother. “Was Daddy’s youngest brother called Coco?” I asked her. She almost fainted. “Who told you that?” she asked in a trembling voice. When I enlightened her, she ordered me never to go near a Ouija board again – but of course I did. I even made contact with her parents, who were also murdered in the Holocaust, but I never told her.
During a period of hard times in Israel when work was scarce, my husband suggested that I earn some money doing coffee and card readings. My Hebrew was not yet good enough, but my Sabra husband spoke fluent English and offered to translate. I told him that this would disturb the aura, but since he didn’t believe in the supernatural or psychic abilities, it made no impression. No one seemed to mind his being the translator and, contrary to what I had thought, his presence was not a disrupting force.
I have no idea what induced me to interpret the cards or the coffee or the lines on the palm in the way that I did. I had one couple come to me in which the wife was a naïve believer in fortune tellers, and the husband thought the whole thing was a waste of time but had come along to humor her. I was completely off-key with her and spot-on with him. Go figure.
But for someone else for whom I was reading cards, I stopped in the middle and queried if I could ask an extremely personal question. She said it was OK, and I asked her if she was a lesbian. She breathed a huge sigh of relief. It was a time in which gay people had not yet come out of the closet, and she had been itching to share her secret with someone who would not condemn her. “How did you know?” she asked. I told her that no matter how many times we shuffled the cards, the pairs never came up king and queen or jack and queen but had come up queen and queen, which led to my conclusion.
A year or so after that, my Chabad friends from Sydney came to Israel on vacation and took me to a kabbalist in Netivot. He had a pile of discarded pages from holy books. Letters on the pages were damaged. In accordance with Jewish tradition, the pages could no longer be used and had to be stored in a geniza. But this kabbalist was doing something else with them, which to me was a sign of heresy. He asked the people who sought his counsel to pick a letter. The he burned it, placed the ashes in a saucer, and then rubbed the ashes on the forehead of the person. He then he proceeded to tell me all kinds of evil and untrue things about my husband and practically ordered me to leave him.
That was the end of my fortune-telling days. I suddenly realized how dangerous a pursuit this could be and wondered how many lives this man had ruined by ordering gullible people to leave their spouses.
Of course, if one has the gift, one can’t completely reject it. Sometimes, when people who speak with their hands leave them momentarily outstretched in my direction, I can’t help but glance at the lifeline, the success line, the heart line and the intelligence line to see if they jive with the impressions I have of the person. Most of the time they do.