USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘jewish’
Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

Yiddish Jinx: “Kneina Hura”

Main Piece: “So in the Jewish tradition… it’s really a Yiddish term… so I think more of the older generation identifies with it and it’s been passed down my family from my grandparents and, so, the term is ‘kneina hura’. It’s basically what we would consider a jinx and so it’s when you say something in advance and then if something is going well but then you’re like don’t say it… that’s kneina hura. I’m trying to think of an example. So it might be if you have an event coming up over the weekend and you look at the forecast and you say oh what great weather– my mom would say don’t say that, that’s kneina hura because then it may rain.”

Background: The informant heard this term from her mother and grandmother, who still uses Yiddish. The informant has very little knowledge of Yiddish, while her mother knows only what she’s heard from her own mother. Growing up, the informant intepreted this saying as a way to ward off a jinx. Her mother occassionally uses Yiddish informally, but her grandmother uses Yiddish terminology quite often. The informant notes that jinxes are important to her family because they believe that despite the inevitability of things going wrong, there is some higher authority with control over these events.

Performance Context: The informant sat in a chair while I sat at my desk.

My Thoughts: The informant’s piece of folklore has been passed down orally directly through the grandmother, who is the family’s holder of Yiddish terminology. Yiddish is considered a dying, or even dead, language with little contemporary usage. The informant herself rarely uses Yiddish and can only remember a few phrases from her grandmother, so it seems unlikely that this saying will be passed down generationally. The superstition and value placed on the power of the jinx is interesting, as the evil eye (a source of protection against harm) is quite dominant in navigating chance and fortune in Jewish tradition.

Customs
Gestures
Holidays

Leaving Wine for Elijah at Passover

The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

Informant: “Back when I was a kid, with your Opa [the word for “Grandpa” in Dutch] every Passover, we would leave a glass of wine—in our most ornate wine glass—for Elijah, like we do now, but we would also all go around the table after the meal and have to tell a little anecdote about Elijah.

 

Interviewer: “Can you explain who Elijah is?”

Informant: “Elijah is a Jewish prophet. It’s tradition to leave a spot for him at the table at Passover so that if he passes through he will stop at your house and give you good luck and health. So we would go around and all have to tell a short made-up story about him. And it was silly that we did this—I don’t know anyone else who did this, but I know that my dad always said that he had done it with his family at their seders growing up.”

 

Thoughts:

I’ve participated in the Elijah ritual myself, so I can speak from a first-person perspective as well as commenting on my informant’s information. In my opinion, leaving a glass for Elijah symbolizes hope, for the future and for the Jewish people—a people historically oppressed and systematically pushed down. Leaving a glass and/or opening a door for the prophet, Elijah, to come is a way of leaving the door open to positive things to come. As it is a prophet that the glass of wine is left for, this custom can also be seen as a seeking of knowledge or insight.

Customs
Life cycle
Old age
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Sitting Shiva

The informant is a 20-year old Jewish student attending USC. She was born in Venezuela but has lived in Miami since she was eight years old. She is majoring in Engineering. The information she shared with me is about Jewish funeral custom.

 

Informant: “Everyone goes to the funeral home or the synagogue, or wherever the funeral is taking place. There is a service; the Rabbi says some prayers in Hebrew and in English and some kind words about the deceased. Then usually some family members will speak about the person who has passed.”

 

Interviewer: “What kind of stuff do they say?”

 

Informant: “Well it varies. Sometimes they will talk about the person’s accomplishments, sometimes they will tell funny stories about the person, or their fondest memories with them. I was at a funeral about a month ago where one of the deceased’s grandchildren read a portion of a school project she had written about her grandma when she was a kid. She had interviewed her grandma for the project. It was really cool.”

 

Interviewer: “That sounds really cool. What happens next?”

 

Informant: “Well, everyone goes outside where the burial takes place. I don’t know if it is Jewish tradition everywhere, but at least at the weddings I’ve been to, there are shovels around the burial site, and everyone who wants to can shovel some earth onto the grave. It’s really beautiful. Then there is a shiva.

 

Interviewer: “What’s the shiva?”

 

Informant: “The shiva is when everyone—the family and friends of the deceased’s family—goes to someone close to the person who has passed’s house. There is lots of food and drink (usually non-alcoholic though) and people eat and talk. It’s a big gathering as a sort of celebration of the person’s life and as a way to comfort the family.”

 

Thoughts:

Often rituals surrounding death double as celebrations of life and a reason for social gathering. Death is a rite of passage and like other rite of passage rituals, it is a rite of transition, mainly for the family and friends of the deceased. The shivas I’ve been to aren’t typically sad events. The funeral itself is generally a somber, teary-eyed event, but shivas I’ve attended often involve a lot of conversing and even a good-deal of joke-telling.

Customs
Holidays
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

613 Seeds in a Pomegranate

When collecting folklore from my friends, I asked, “Jodie, what d’ya got?”

My informant Jodie told me that she believes that there are 613 seeds in a pomegranate.  When I asked her where this came from, Jodie told me that it’s a Jewish belief.  Still not understanding the connection between Jews and the number 613, Jodie explained that there are 613 commandments in the Jewish Bible.  I was under the impression that there were only 10 Commandments given to Moses, but contrary to my belief there are 613 commandments within the Jewish tradition.

Jodie learned this in Jewish day school in her youth.  I asked if this belief had any significance.  Do you eat pomegranate on any special occasions? Any special dishes with pomegranate?  She explained that its sometimes served on high holidays.  However, she does not celebrate the high holiday where the pomegranate is most popular, Tu B’Shvat.  This holiday is known as the New Year for the Trees and eating fresh fruit is a custom on this holiday.

I asked Jodie if she had ever counted all of the seeds of the pomegranate.  She said that she did in elementary school, but how can you trust elementary school students to count that high?

The fact that Jodie and her classmates counted the number of seeds in the pomegranate demonstrates that this belief is present within the Jewish community.

Folk Beliefs
general

Don’t pass the salt!

“You don’t ever pass salt. It has to go down [demonstrates placing a salt shaker down on the table], you never pass salt . . . That’s a pretty common one. Like if I have, if this is salt, you know like, ‘Oh, pass the salt,’ never pass the salt to someone that you love! You put it down, they pick it up. You can pass pepper, that’s fine, but you never, ever pass salt. Big no.” I asked the informant why she did this and she said, “The passing salt thing? That’s, like, a death sentence, like why would you do that? You, it means you want to, like, cut ties with someone, if you pass them salt. And if you do that and it happens, that’s when you do the salt over your left shoulder, I believe. I never do it, so I don’t have to do that.”

 

The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” She said she learned this practice from her mother, but also said she thinks most of the superstitions her family practices come from Romania because her great great great grandmother was “the Romanian town palm reader and she read tea leaves and, like, they were a very mystical family.” When I asked her further about why she thinks this was, she said, “Because they were poor, that’s probably why. Because they had nothing. And the pogroms were going on that were attacking the Jews, so stuff like that . . .”

 

I had a long conversation with the informant about superstitions in her family, but it was during her description of this one that she became the most animated and emphatic. It struck me as interesting because she also thought of this practice as being extremely commonplace and straightforward, so much so that she could not believe I would ask why she performed it. It was also interesting that she connected this practice to the one of throwing salt over your left shoulder. The latter is well known to me, although usually in the context of what you do after you spill salt. I do not know why the informant sees this practice as meaning you want to “cut ties with someone” or “death,” but it seems like a trend that salt is involved in important superstitious practices. This could have something to do with salt being an important commodity in a European historical context, or with the fact that it can be used to cure meat and keep food for long periods of time, making it valuable. Since the informant never passes the salt and so never has to throw salt over her left shoulder, it is very possible that she mixed the latter practice up with another. However, the important thing in this context is that it is exactly what she would do were she ever to pass the salt.

 

I agree with the informant that doing things like this to avoid “bad juju” probably has something to do with the performer feeling a lack of control over forces bigger than humanity, such as death. This would make sense in the face of large-scale discrimination and genocide, as occurred in the pogroms. When you are reminded that death could come for you at any moment, it is comforting to think the performance of small actions such as this could help keep you safe.

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

Red String Bracelets

“If you go to the western wall in Israel there’s always people who are there—like around there and basically, like, they give you, um, like you’ll give them money, like, if they’re like begging and then they give you a red string and then they make a blessing on it and then you can’t take the red string, like you can’t remove it until it falls off. And that’s to keep the evil eye away. Like Jews are super into that, about keeping the evil eye away.”

 

The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition and related practices within her family. When I asked the informant to further explain this practice, she said, “Lot of times there’s this thing—have you ever seen, like, the hand? Like the image? So it’s called a ‘hamsa’ in Hebrew and like it’s the same thing, it’s to keep the evil eye away.”

 

The informant had seen this practice occur a lot during her travels to Israel and says she first learned about it from her grandmother who “would [do that] right before she died, she was super into that.” However, at the end of the interview she told me, “I don’t do that, I don’t do evil eyes and I don’t do the hamsa . . . I don’t like it because I feel like it’s idolatry, and I don’t . . . I’m not into that. But I would do the red string ‘cause it’s kind of a cultural thing.”

 

I found this practice to be fascinating because it seems like the greater religious/spiritual meaning of it has become somewhat divorced from the physical act. Something that started as a way to “keep the evil eye away” is still done for that purpose, but also because it has become a cultural thing that someone just does. This is revealed in the fact that an informant who is quick to assure me that she does not believe in the hamsa or the evil eye on the basis of her seeing them as idolatry would still willingly participate in this practice. In addition to it being performed for the previously stated spiritual purpose, I also think there is something to the fact that someone is given these red strings by people who are begging. Because it is now considered a normal cultural practice, it has become an expected social interaction between two people of differing class status in this part of Israel. Essentially, while giving a red string and a blessing might have been an organic way of thanking someone before, it is now almost a required act of gratitude by beggars near the western wall.

Folk Beliefs
general
Protection

“Pull up your ears”

“So, when I was younger, um, my grandparents, like my grandparents . . . my parents are older so by nature my grandparents were older and my grandfather died in 1995. And I remember he didn’t—I remember my mom telling me he passed away and . . . whatever I just remember sitting, we had like this, it’s called an LDK in Japanese, it’s like just a huge room where we all like . . . there’s a kitchen, living room and I remember sitting there and I remember I sneezed and I was watching TV and my mom was like, ‘Pull up your ears.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ But it’s a thing! After someone dies and the other person sneezes you pull up your ears because if you don’t pull up your ears it’s like then that’s bad juju . . . So you have to pull up your ears!”

 

I asked the informant what it means to “pull up your ears” and she demonstrated by taking the top of her ears between her thumbs and forefingers and lightly tugging upwards.

 

“And I do it all the time now because when I sneeze I instantly think of death and then I’m like, ‘Well, just to be safe . . .’ And I’ll do it if I’m in class too . . . And when my grandmother died two years ago, we were constantly pulling up our ears. Still! My mom still does it.”

 

The informant was a 22-year-old USC student who majors in English and minors in genocide studies. Although she grew up in Santa Monica, she comes from a large Jewish family and travels to Israel twice a year to visit her older brother and other extended family there. The interview occurred when we were sitting in the new Annenberg building and started talking about superstition within her family. She said, “There’s a lot of things I have no idea why I do them, but I do them because someone might die if I didn’t do them. Like, that’s how we’re taught . . . It’s kind of a life or death situation.” She said she learned this practice from her mother, but also said she thinks most of the superstitions her family practices come from Romania because her great great great grandmother was “the Romanian town palm reader and she read tea leaves and, like, they were a very mystical family.” When I asked her further about why she thinks this was, she said, “Because they were poor, that’s probably why. Because they had nothing. And the pogroms were going on that were attacking the Jews, so stuff like that . . .”

 

This superstition was fascinating to me because it seems similar to the practice of saying “Bless you!” after someone sneezes, i.e. it is a fairly innocuous action that people do as a way of warding off something much darker. I also think the fact that there are multiple superstitions surrounding the normal bodily function of sneezing is interesting, as it reveals something about the way humans respond to slightly odd and surprising occurrences. I agree with the informant that performing actions like this in order to ward off “bad juju” probably has something to do with the performer feeling a lack of control over forces bigger than humanity, such as death. This would make sense in the face of large-scale discrimination and genocide, as occurred in the pogroms. When you are reminded that death could come for you at any moment, it is comforting to think the performance of small actions such as this could help keep you safe.

Folk speech
Humor

Jewish Jokes

*Note: The informant, Harriet, is my grandmother. She’s a Jewish woman who identifies with Yiddish aspects of Jewish culture.

The following are several Yiddish jokes. At least in my family, humor is considered an integral part of being Jewish, and there’s a special breed of joke that’s distinctively Jewish. Often these jokes come in the form of long stories that can be customized and drawn out by their teller. They often involve old Jews, rabbis, and/or Yiddish words, and a lot of them emphasize wordplay or poke fun at Jewish stereotypes or non-Jews skewed understanding of Jewish culture.

It’s important to note that when these jokes are told, it’s customary for the teller to speak lines of dialogue in a thick, exaggerated Yiddish accent.

INFORMANT: “So there was a big civic dinner one night at the local community center, and there were a bunch of people there from the local synagogue and the local church. And the main dish was this big glazed ham. So when they passed the ham platter to the rabbi, he shakes his head no, and the priest kind of chuckles and teases him and says ‘Rabbi, when are you going to forget that silly rule of yours and eat ham like the rest of us?’ And the Rabbi replies, ‘Oh, at your wedding reception, Father.'”

This is an example of a Jewish culture clash joke that points out the objective silliness of religious traditions and calls out the hypocrisy of other religions who scorn keeping kosher and other Jewish customs. The Christian priest thinks it’s silly that the rabbi doesn’t eat ham, but the rabbi points out that it’s just as silly that the priest can’t get married.

INFORMANT: “A little Jewish boy goes home to his mother and is excited to tell her about the part he got in the school play. He runs home and tells her, and she asks, ‘Oh, Saul, that’s wonderful, what part are you?’ Saul says, ‘I’m gonna play the Jewish husband!’ And his mother frowns and says, ‘Saul, honey, I thought you said you wanted a speaking part?'”

Jewish jokes often play on the fact that Jewish wives and mothers are perceived as extremely strong-willed and stubborn – they often run the house and are dominant over their husbands. The mother considers the role of Jewish husband a non-speaking role, poking fun at Jewish marital dynamics.

INFORMANT: “So there was this Jewish town and they didn’t have enough men to have a decent number of weddings, so they started importing men from other towns. One day a groom-to-be came in on the train, and two mother-in-laws-to-be were waiting for him. The first one said, ‘Oh, that’s my son-in-law,’ and the second one said, ‘No, he’s MY son-in-law.’ The town called a rabbi to settle the dispute. He gave it some thought and he told them, ‘If you both want the son-in-law, we’ll just cut him in half and give each of you one half of him.’ And one woman replied, ‘No, that’s horrible! Just give him to the other woman.’ And the rabbi says, ‘I will give him to the other woman. The one willing to cut him in half must be the true mother-in-law!'”

This joke is a play on the old Biblical story of King Solomon and the baby, except in that story, the real mother is the woman who tells King Solomon not to cut the baby in half, because she truly cares for her child and wants to see it live, even if it has to belong to another woman. In this variation, the family members involved are sons and their mothers-in-law, a relation that can generally tend to be tense in American culture. The joke implies that all real mothers-in-law dislike and wish harm on their sons-in-law, so the man’s real mother in law must be the one who was about to let him get cut in half!

INFORMANT: “There’s this beautiful lady at a charity ball and she’s wearing an enormous diamond, so another lady comes up to her and compliments her on it. The woman with the diamond goes, ‘Oh, thank you, darling. It’s the third biggest diamond in the world. There’s the Hope Diamond, the Kohinoor, and then this one, the Lipshitz diamond.’

‘You must be so lucky,’ said the other lady, and the diamond lady says, ‘Oh no, but it’s not all peaches and cream. With the Lipshitz diamond comes the Lipshitz curse.’

‘Well, what’s the Lipshitz curse?’

‘Lipshitz.’

This is another joke poking fun at Jewish marital relations and the notion that Jewish people are greedy. In this scenario, the woman with the diamond is excited to have the diamond, but she considers the husband that gave it to her a curse. Jewish wives are often portrayed as being sick of or disdainful of their husbands.

general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Shot of Akvavit and Swedish Song

Informant “J” is a 19 year male old college student at the University of Southern California, he is studying Neuroscience and is a Sophomore at the time of this interview. He was born in Danville, California to a Jewish father and as a result J has regular exposure to Jewish traditions and customs. Though he does involve himself with Jewish traditions, he does not practice Judaism and considers himself non-religious.

 

“J: So my… during Hanukkah dinners we’d always go over to my cousin’s house and during this time at the end of the dinner during desert, my… uh… my aunt’s dad, was… uh… Swedish, he was from Sweden and he had this drink over there called Akvavit. It was this type of hard liquor, um, it was a yellowish kinda, it was a yellowish hard liquor, it was a little sweet. But basically at um… after every single meal that he had during Hanukkah at desert time we’d all have a shot, even the little kids, even my cousin who are like 10 and 8 would have a shot of this.

Me: Uh huh.

J: Beacuse it was kind of this tradition that they had afterwards, you would sing a song, we’d try to sing a long as well but it was… it.. uh… we didn’t really understand what he was saying and after that we’d all take a shot and basically what he said was just kind of this old song that meant .. like.. good tiding, like long live the next night and the holidays and meet with your family.

Me: Is this a Swedish or a Jewish song?

J: Uh, that was actually a Swedish song so it was um, it was, he sung it in Swedish because although we were all Jewish he kinda just brought his own little culture into it and it was kind of a way to celebrate it but also do it during a sort of special Jewish holiday. ”

 

Analysis: The partaking of drinking of the whole family during a holiday is very common as a sort of relaxing of cultural customs during holidays, as is seen with things like the New Year’s Kiss or kissing under the mistletoe during Christmas. The fusion of Swedish tradition with a Jewish context, as well as a partaking of the whole family, shows an overall acceptance of J’s aunt’s father’s Swedish traditions, and an acceptance of this fusion as a sign of mutual respect.

The drink of choice, Akvavit, was explain by J as being fairly popular in Sweden. It appears that Sweden is the largest producer of the drink and the name is latin for ‘water of life’. It is made from distilled potato or grains (“aquavit”, Encyclopædia Britannica ).

The song sung afterwards is a classic example of a drinking song, which usually following directly after or before a drink. The song itself is unknown.

Work Cited

“aquavit”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2015. Web. 22 Apr. 2015
<http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/31128/aquavit>.

 

general

Fishman Family Seder Song

Informant “J” is a 19 year male old college student at the University of Southern California, he is studying Neuroscience and is a Sophomore at the time of this interview. He was born in Danville, California to a Jewish father and as a result J has regular exposure to Jewish traditions and customs. Though he does involve himself with Jewish traditions, he does not practice Judaism and considers himself non-religious.

 

“J: One thing my family and I like to do during our Passover Seders is that we have this, at the end of the Seder, we have this dinner and we all like to sing our own song which is called “The Fishman Seder” song, I don’t know exactly how it goes, because we have always had the sheet but it started…

“Wouldn’t it be greater than to be at Fishman Seder, or a Fishman Seder on Meeesssaaa ” (audio attached)

J: And it’s really fun and we’d pound the table and everything and it’s just something that we’d do after every single Seder dinner, which we like to have a lot of our, a lot of our kind of traditions, based on a kind of Jewish Holidays. Granted we tend to go off of my Mom’s religion, we tend to go off Protestant, but a lot of the things we do as families we do during Hanukkah or Passover.

Me: Alright… um, the Fishman song, do your Grandparents, or do any other previous generations sing that, or did you guys originate that?

J: So I think it was actually my Grandparents who came up with it, beacuse the first time we sung it, it was with our Grandparents and they pulled out a piece of paper and they said “we came up with this new song”. They came up with it with my uncle and aunt as well. They all liked it so they were the first Fishman to sing the song.

Me: How long ago was that?

J: I don’t know, before I was born I know.

Me: Do you guys sing it when your Grandparents aren’t around?

J: No it’s sort of only when we’re all together, not unless they’re at Seder with us.”

 

Analysis:

Although “J” informs me that the tune is a familiar one and not a Fishman original, I am not sure of the origin of the song. I welcome anyone with any idea where the tune might be from (from the audio clip above) to comment on this posting. The Fishman Seder song seems to act as a celebration of the family as a whole, and acts as a way to celebrate being part of the Fishman family (“…be greater than to be at Fishman Seder”) as well as their coming together. The family working to build the tune together, as “J” mentions happened before he was born, as well as the families continued insistence to sing the song during Jewish Seder supports this conclusion. As Seder is a Jewish Passover tradition, and as the family is unified during this event, it can help to both reinforce their Jewish identity and its connection to their shared experience as a Family.

As the event is sung at the end of Seder, it may also act to transition from one Passover event to another, or to transition into the end of the evening. Either way the event seems to act to transition during a liminal period of the event while also reinforcing the sense of community the Seder dinner builds, as if to sort of epitomize the event they are concluding.

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