Tag Archives: contagious magic

Folk Belief on Gifting Purses

Note: The form of this submission includes the dialogue between the informant and I before the cutoff (as you’ll see if you scroll down), as well as my own thoughts and other notes on the piece after the cutoff. The italics within the dialogue between the informant and I (before the cutoff) is where and what kind of direction I offered the informant whilst collecting. 

Informant’s Background:

I’m from Jupiter, but grew up in Chicago. My dad was born in Indiana or Illinois, somewhere in the Mid-West. My mom is from Singapore.


One time, I lost my purse at the mall and my mom was really mad at me. I don’t think I’ve ever lost my purse after that. But there were a couple of different scenarios that could have resulted in her telling me this, I don’t quite remember.

My mom told me once… you know what I think maybe I was giving her a purse, or I was giving a purse to someone else, or maybe she was giving a purse to someone and yeah, she made me put a coin in it. She said it’s bad luck to give anyone a purse or a wallet without some sort of money in it.

Piece Background Information:

I definitely think about it when I gift or hand down purses, but I don’t always practice it. I do practice it with my mom though by usually just putting a penny in the purse.


Context of Performance:

In person, during the day, in the informant’s retail shop in Echo Park, Los Angeles.

Thoughts on Piece: 

This idea that giving a coin or some form of monetary fortune with the gift of a purse falls under contagious magic in a sense, as the object that was once in contact with the gift-giver has the ability to influence the gift-giver and the receiver bad fortune. This folk belief is shared across many different cultures, and can be supported by the fact that my Hawaiian half-sister also shared this with me too, lending itself to Dundes’ definition of folklore that it must show multiplicity and variation. Variations include similar accounts with giving knives or scissors as gifts. I find it particularly interesting that while the informant, who is a retail shop owner and manager, claims that she always has the thought when gifting or handing down a purse that she must put a coin in it, but only truly practices it with her mother, who instilled this belief within her. This could perhaps be reflective of the fact that her occupation and the world we live in today sees clothing and accessory items as disposable.

Kina Hora/ The Evil Eye

Cultural Background:

Sylvia Glass was born in 1915 in New York City, to immigrant parents—her mother was an Austrian-Jewish immigrant, and her father was a Russian-Jewish immigrant. Describing her childhood, she states that “at that time, New York City had a density that was closer—or more—than that of China. There were so many people jammed together in these old tenement houses—you had a whole floor of people in your apartment, who shared one bathroom. None of them even had windows, except on skylights, or looking out on someone else’s tenement window. So, it was just a very crowded condition. For the most part, people got along very well because they all came more or less from the same place, they were all poor, but, you know, though you didn’t have much, you didn’t think of yourself as poor. . . . Life was spent on the street because the apartments were crowded, dark, and very uninviting. So, we used to spend our time on the street playing hopscotch, jump rope. The little boys were always playing ball in the street. Everything was street-oriented. . . .

“I remember going to school. At that time, I only spoke Yiddish at home, and my mother took me to the teacher, and the teacher said, when did she come from Europe? And my mother said very indignantly, ‘she was born here!’ I’m a citizen! And, I was speaking only Yiddish at home, but I did not struggle with English; I caught onto it very quickly. The classrooms were so crowded that they didn’t have enough seats for everybody. But everybody there was hungry to get educated, and at that time, of course, the emphasis on higher education was only for the boys. Everybody wanted their sons to be doctors or accountants or lawyers. But the girls would wind up being in the factories at sewing machines. The highest honor was to be a teacher. In two years you could become a teacher, and then you would be one of the elite.”

The Evil Eye:

Q. Were there a lot of superstitions growing up?

A. Yeah, yeah. They didn’t want you to praise anybody because they’re going to get—I don’t know what you call Kina Hora—no good thing could happen to you. You’d spit over your shoulder.

Q. You’re not supposed to praise people?

A. Yeah. It would be tempting to the devil or something. You’re not supposed to praise people. Never in front of them.

Analysis: According to Rabbi Tanchum Burton, the Yiddish phrase “Kein Ayin Hora” “translate[s] as, ‘without the evil eye,’ or ‘there should be no evil eye.’ When it’s said quickly is [sic] can sometimes sound like ‘Kina Hora’” (Burton).

Beliefs in the evil eye appear to reflect anxieties about envy—fear that when one person praises another, he or she may be secretly jealous. My informant’s superstition involves spitting over one’s shoulder, a magical mechanism intended to protect one against others’ jealousy. Since such beliefs are very prevalent in Eastern Europe, they must have travelled to New York with Eastern European immigrants, such as my informant’s parents.

Burton, Tanchum. “‘Kina Hora’ and the Evil Eye.” JewishAnswers.org, n.d. Web. 26 April 2012.    <http://www.jewishanswers.org/ask-the-rabbi-category/miscellaneous/?p=1855>.