USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘jewish custom’
Customs
Festival
Game
Holidays
Legends
Narrative
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Megilah Reading

Every Purim Jews congregate to listen to a reading from a book called the Megilah which features the backstory of Purim. It’s the most outwardly religious part of Purim. The congregation is encouraged to be active and loud, reacting verbally to every single mention of the characters’ names in the story. Mordecai and Ester (the Jewish heroes) get jubilant cheers every time their name is read while the bad guy Haman is booed. The congregation is even traditionally encouraged to drink so much that they can’t tell whose names to boo or cheer.

Again, this is the religious part of Purim but the encouragement to chime in makes it stand out from other Jewish holidays in a way that fits the extra cheerful celebration of Purim. While this folklorist’s congregation doesn’t drink during the reading, it does fit the rest of the relatively lax nature of the event.

Customs
Humor
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Stamp Out the Name

One tradition of the Jewish holiday Purim is to take measures to stamp out the name of Haman, the man who tried and failed to kill all Persian Jews in the Purim story. This manifests in other little traditions but one of the most literal involves people writing Haman’s name (in English or Hebrew) on the sole of their shoes so then they walk about stamping out the name throughout their day. Sometimes this is even paired with secondary events to maximize stamping such as a footrace.

While never personally observed by this folklorist (my synagogue doesn’t do this) this tradition stands out as a humorously obvious interpretation of the idea to stamp out the man’s name and ergo very believable. It’s an ancient, international holiday; someone has to have done this. The humor is assuredly intentional and adds to the joyous vibe of the rest of the holiday.

Customs
Folk Dance
Musical

Up You Men

Official pep song of the Aleph Zadek Aleph (male Jewish teen youth group). Commonly started by president/board member/event leader drawing out the first word before everyone jumps in and forms a mosh pit.

Lyrics (More shouted than sung): Up you men and sing to AZA

Time will pass and we’ll be on our way

As the years go by there will be

Happiest of memories (Ra ra ra!)

Stand and then

We’ll sing this song again

All you loyal men

Sing the praises of our order

Sing up you men of AZA

(Once it reaches this part the song usually winds down with everyone matching a “heartbeat” rhythm pattern on their chest.)

 

The song is a shortcut for whatever peer leader is running a given meeting or event to bring up the energy in the group and get them to pay attention in one fell swoop. The lyrics themselves serve to hype up the group and its individual members in a way that’s somewhat jingoist. No official origin is known, but the full lyrics are included in the official AZA handbooks which speaks to its deep history and significance to the folk group. The organization’s origins (also detailed in the handbook) as a very pro-American group which contributed to the nation’s WWII war effort probably explains the jingoist vibe of the piece. Little details such as the second verse present in the handbook being absent in favor of the heartbeat rhythm (explained to me once with “Every Aleph’s heart beats the same way.”) as well as the mosh pit aspect (the handbook doesn’t comment on dances for the song) indicates that the song is still a living, breathing folk tradition that defies standardization and continues to evolve in use.

Customs
Folk speech
Humor
Musical

Airforce Ranger

An off-the-books traditional AZA (Jewish teen youth group) call and response chant, with one person shouting each line before the entire group repeats it back. Sometimes different leaders will switch off and alternate rhymes, especially the more taboo stuff towards the end.

Lyrics: I want to be an airforce ranger

I want to live a life of danger

I want to drive an ocean liner

I want to pull a sixty-niner

And here’s to the woman that I love best

The many times I sucked her breast

F***** her standing, f***** her lying

If she had wings I’d f*** her flying

Now she’s gone but not forgotten

I’ll dig her up and f*** her rotten

Though she’s gone, I’ll surely miss her

I’ll call her up and f*** her sister

 

This song is an exercise in playing with taboo concepts and language in a childlike way that’s reminiscent of what Jay Mechling called obscene play. It’s usually performed in a relatively isolated setting, either inside the meeting room (usually some side room in a synagogue) or elsewhere separated from the adult advisors that represent the org legally. (That’s what separates the group from just loitering teens I guess.) It’s performed in this isolated, just teens setting alongside other similarly sexual vulgar songs in a kind of group catharsis act. The lyrics employ lots of shock humor that comes from all this extremely explicit material being unabashedly used in a public group in a public setting, especially one that is ostensibly a religious group. It basically signals to new members “We’re not prudes.”

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Foodways
general
Rituals, festivals, holidays
Signs

Pass the Salt Superstition

Main Piece:

“It is bad luck to hand someone the salt without setting it down on the table first to break the connection.”

Context and Analysis:

My informant is a 47-year-old female. She says she first heard this superstition when she was having dinner with a couple of friends.  They were enjoying dinner when one of the ladies asked for the salt.  The person closest to the salt picked up the salt shaker and handed it to the person who had asked for the salt. The lady who had asked for the salt was reluctant to take the salt from the other person’s hand.  She then asked if it could be set down at the table because she did not want to take the salt shaker from the other person’s hand. The lady who had passed the salt asked why she had to set it down. The other lady responded that it was bad luck to pass the salt from one hand to another without setting it down first. My informant says she has since adopted the superstition claiming there is no harm in following the tradition and likes to think she is avoiding bad luck. I asked my informant where she thinks this superstition began, to this she responded she is unsure, but she thought it had something to do with the Jewish faith because the people she has encountered that strictly follow this superstition are Jewish.

I had heard this superstition before but was curious to know where it originates from and why this is the case. In looking into this superstition I found countless of other superstitions, beliefs, and traditions about salt. Such as the bad luck implied with spilling the slat on the table, and if one does so then they must immediately pick up a pinch of the salt and throw it over their left shoulder. It is also believed salt is a protector and would keep away evil spirits. To keep an unwanted visitors away some believed that if one sprinkles salt at the door right after they leave then sweep it up and burn it they will not return. I also discovered a belief in Buddhist tradition making it common to throw salt over your shoulder when returning home or after a funeral to keep the evil spirits away.

After finding so many beliefs about salt I looked into those related particularly just to the Jewish faith following my informant’s intuition this was a Jewish belief. To my surprise, there were also other Jewish superstitions related to salt. These included placing pockets of salt in the corners of a room or the pockets of clothing to drive evils away(myjewishlearning.com), and throwing salt over your shoulder if you spilled the salt. The likely reason for so many salt superstitions and beliefs is likely due to the value of salt in the Middle Ages. Salt was extremely rare and expensive therefore the thought of spilling it would be unspeakable; similarly to spilling a bag of miniature diamonds in current day standards(something of very high value). In Judaism salt seems to have positive connotations. It is customary to sprinkle it over the challah(ceremonial Jewish bread) and is used as a preserver making what it touches last forever, elevating its status (jtsa.edu).

I found it very difficult to find any information about the passing of the salt specifically. The most common salt superstition I found was about spilling the salt. I can’t seem to recall where I heard this but remember someone mentioning passing the salt being a taboo due to the high value of salt. Therefore setting the salt down before the other person picks it back up acts as breaking the connection between the holder of the salt and the person who is about to hold it. Therefore, if anyone spills the salt it will be clear whose fault it was. Whoever picks the salt back up is now responsible for the salt. This eliminates any debate or misplacing of fault if the salt is spilled.

“SPILLING SALT.” Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (1876-1904), vol. XI, no. 4, 04, 1881, pp. 413. ProQuest, http://libproxy.usc.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.libproxy1.usc.edu/docview/136551260?accountid=14749.

https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/popular-superstitions/

http://www.jtsa.edu/sprinkling-salt-on-the-challah

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Narrative

How Purim, A Jewish Holiday, Came to Be: The Story of Esther

The following is a conversation with AJ that describes her interpretation and knowledge of the Story of Esther; the story behind the Jewish holiday of Purim.

 

AJ: So basically, the second in command to the King, named Haman, made a decree that everyone needed to bow down to him, but this one guy named Mordecai didn’t want to bow down to him because you’re really not allowed to bow down to anyone that’s not God. So, Haman then hated all the Jews. So, he made a decree for a lottery, which picked a day that would essentially be “the purge” for killing Jews; you’d have the whole day to kill Jews and you wouldn’t get in trouble. So, the day he chose “the purge” for was on the 13th of Adar, which falls tomorrow (March 20th), I think, and it was called Purim.

So, while this is happening, the King was having a three-day festival party, and he told his wife to come so he could show her off or whatever. But she didn’t come and just had her own party with the girls, and it was so disrespectful to the King that he got rid of her. So, then he held a beauty pageant for a new wife, and he recruited every girl from the city. So basically, Mordecai, from earlier, had a niece named Esther, and they were trying to hide her, but the King’s men found her. When she went to the beauty pageant, the King liked her the most and she was the most beautiful, so she became Queen. Mordecai then told Esther that this [happening] was a sign that she needed to use her position as Queen to try and convince the King that he shouldn’t kill the Jews with the purge system that Haman created. And then basically Esther was really scared because you can’t approach the King, even if you’re the Queen, without him calling [upon] you or using his power on you. So that’s why the Jews fasted for three days, to make sure nothing would happen to her when she went to the King. They fasted because it was custom that you were supposed to fast if you really wanted something to happen […]; fasting helps give you luck. So, she went to the King and asked for a tea party to talk about Haman. So, Esther had the party twice, but couldn’t find her words until the third time when she told the King that Haman was trying to kill her people, the Jews. The King then was like, “What, oh my gosh!” […] there are more details, but anyway, the King sentences Haman and all his sons and they were hung, but only after Haman carried Mordecai on a horse to get his full embarrassment before his death. The lottery decree was able to be reversed because of the King’s power and then the Jew’s were saved because of Esther.

 

EK:  So, then what do you, and other Jews, do to celebrate for Purim?

 

AJ: Um, okay, so we fast for a day, which is tomorrow (March 20th), the same as the 13th of Adar, and then we read this story at night before we have a big feast. Also, it’s a custom to give each other food baskets to friends and family during this time.

 

EK: Interesting, so what does this story mean to you, as someone who is Jewish?

 

AJ: Basically, I know it because through being Jewish and it’s just a story that’s identifiable to all Jewish people because everyone in the religion celebrates the holiday, so it just brings us all together and we get food baskets in the process, haha.

 

My Interpretation:

It is very clear that the Jewish religion places a lot of emphasis on the stories of their religion and the sacredness of their celebrations. These origins seem to date back thousands of years, as well as the worship during the sacred holiday. During Purim, I watched AJ strictly abide by the rules of fasting throughout the day; obviously this is a holiday that Jews take very seriously. As this story is a part of their culture and religion, it seems that many Jews know it by heart. When AJ was sharing the story, she did not have to think twice about many of the details, like it was common practice for her to recite.

Adulthood
Childhood
Customs
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Jewish Baby Shower Custom

Text

The following piece is a Jewish custom collected from a twenty-two year old girl in a library with a group of other girls, all studying. The girls were discussing an upcoming family pregnancy. The “Informant” shared the following information with the table. I will be referred to as the “Collector”.

Informant: “Apparently, in Jewish culture, Jewish women aren’t allowed, or like supposed to have baby showers. Apparently it’s bad luck.”

Collector: “What does that mean?”

Informant: “Well, Jewish women are not supposed to prepare for the baby before it is born. It’s bad luck to receive presents for the baby before it’s born. So, like the mother or friends can accept the presents but she can’t give them to the mother. Also, you’re allowed to paint the baby’s room but you can’t bring in the crib. So when the mother finally goes into labor, whoever had the presents or other baby stuff goes to the house and sets up the crib and baby’s room with all the presents. So that it’s ready by the time the mom and baby come home.”

Context

            The Informant learned of this custom from her friend who is Jewish. When questioned, the Informant said that her friend’s mother was the one who told her and was very strict about the tradition. Her mother did it and all the women of the family still uphold the tradition. The Informant remembers learning of the tradition very clearly because she remembers her friends’ anger at the tradition overall.

Interpretation

I had previously never heard of this Jewish custom. I was surprised to hear that it was still very much a part of Jewish women’s practices and belief system. I understand how some of the preparation for a baby coming might lead to superstitious beliefs, or the thought of jinxing the pregnancy, but the idea that the baby shower in particular is bad luck was surprising to me. I’ve always thought that the purpose of a baby shower was to welcome bother the woman to motherhood and the baby to life. It has always seemed to me to be a celebration of life. It’s interesting to me to know to understand the other perspective that it might be an unlucky aspect of the pregnancy.

Customs

Shomer Negiah

Interviewer: Do you have any Jewish customs that you are familiar with that you could share with me? 

SS: Yes have you ever heard of Shomer Negiah?

Interviewer: No I have not, could you explain it to me?

SS: Yes it is the practice of refraining from touching people of the opposite sex. Shomer negiah translates in Hebrew to observant of touch. 

Interviewer: You cannot touch any one of the other sex, even family? And does this apply in all situations?

SS: It depends how you practice it, mostly everyone who practices it can touch family and can touch others in very casual manners such as shaking hands or bumping into people. But people differ on how seriously they practice it.

Interviewer: Is this a custom that stems directly from religious texts and beliefs or is it of a social origin?

SS: I believe it comes from some verses in the Torah but the meanings were interpreted into these social customs. 

Interviewer: Is this something that is widely practiced in the Jewish community you are familiar with? 

SS: No not really, it is usually only practiced buy very religious individuals, I have some relatives that do it and they are all much more religiously devoted than me and my immediate family. 

Interviewer: Have you seen people physically practice this custom outside of your relatives?

SS: Yes I lived in Israel for a year during high school and it became more apparent to me during my time there that it was more widely practiced than I had thought. 

Interviewer: What are your thoughts on the practice? How does it affect your understanding and opinions of jewish customs?

SS: I think its a pretty interesting one because like a lot of other jewish customs it differs in how seriously people practice it and if they do at all. I also think its pretty interesting because its something that I don’t practice but people and my culture do and its a pretty radical difference in our everyday lives. I couldn’t imagine have to avoid almost all physical contacts with women not in my family. 

Context: I received this explanation of a Jewish folk custom from an 18 year old male Jewish from Los Angeles. He practices Judaism and been raised in a Jewish household his entire life. This interview was done in person at the USC Leavey Library. 

Analysis: I find this custom to fascinating primarily because it is a religious practice and a social custom that has quite a bit of multiplicity and variation. The actual practice seems to be pretty black and white, not touching members of the opposite sex, however the manner and extent of whether or not people of Jewish faith practice it is fascinating. It is also something that affects everyday activities pretty largely for those who practice it yet they are still apart of the same community as those who may not.

general
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Moroccan Jewish Passover Custom

Background: Leigh comes from a Moroccan Jewish family. Her experience with these Passover traditions have been with her mom and grandparents. 

Context: I interviewed Leigh in person and recorded our conversation on my phone. Her comments below are what I transcribed out of our conversation. She described the mimouna (pronounced mee-moo-nah) Passover ritual, which she had previously mentioned at the same time as the henna wedding ritual (published under the title “Moroccan Wedding Tradition”). 

 

“Basically the mimouna is when you break the Passover fast of not eating leavened bread with very decadent festivities. Very decadent sugary desserts, lots of marzipan. There’s something called a mufleta*, which is basically a Moroccan crepe that you fill with all sorts of things like honey, or nutella, you know..butter, bunch of other stuff, sugar. My favorite memory is actually when we were a lot younger and in my grandparents’ old apartment, I think right around the time of my aunt’s wedding, my grandma would prepare these very intricate handmade marzipan desserts that resembled exotic fruits and sugar cookies and all this stuff, which to be honest I don’t love the flavor of but they’re exquisite to look at. She has a whole Moroccan cookbook and I know she sent recipes to that same aunt that got married all those years ago. They’re very beautiful. I learned this tradition from my mom and my grandparents. The set-up is kind of different everywhere you go. My mom was more focused on getting us around the actual frying pan to see her make the mufleta, and also so we could just have them fresh off the press. At my grandparents house, where it was more of an ordeal they would stack up all of these like Moroccan crepes on a plate like a mountain, then you had your assortment of jams and butter and chocolate. In Israel they would serve this kosher chocolate spread called “Shachar” brand but in the States at our house we would eat Nutella. In Israel it was mostly honey and butter, jelly would be kind of apricot, orange marmalade.”

*mufleta- pronounced moof-leh-tah

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