Tag Archives: Judaism

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.


Interviewee: So my family was never really Jewish. My grandfather was always like, “I’m Jew-ish.” Or maybe that’s what my aunt said about him. But he never really practiced. He only went to Temple on the high holy days, like Rosh Hashanah, and even then it wasn’t guaranteed. So we never really celebrated it in our house. But I always keenly aware of the fact that I was different from other kids. And probably that mostly stemmed from me being Hispanic.

Interviewer: It’s hard to celebrate Hispanic culture. Like there are no Hispanic mainstream holidays.

Interviewee: Yeah and like living in the whitest town in the country. I tried to make my family celebrate Hanukkah, and my mom was always open to it even though she was super Catholic. She just loves God, I don’t really get it. But it never really worked out because my Dad didn’t celebrate Hanukkah as a kid, he celebrated Christmas. So that didn’t really work out.

But then my best friend since basically birth, his Mom is Jewish and his grandmother wanted to start doing Passover with them. So they invited us over for Seder. And now it’s become this big thing where I always look forward to Passover, I looked forward to it all year.

So we would get together and the joke was that he is half-Jewish on his Mom’s side, I’m half-Jewish on my dad’s side, so together the family makes an entire Jewish family.

And the thing about this friend’s grandmother is that no one in her family really likes her, but in my family we view her as a god.

Interviewer: How many times a year do you see her?

Interviewee: I make it a point to go see her whenever she’s in town. She’s really funny; she acts just like my grandmother, but she has this thick New York Jewish accent. “JR come over here, let me get a good look at you. Do a turn for me.”

So no one really likes her in that family, but in my family she is the bomb, everyone wants to hang out with her. So we would come over for Passover, and immediately she and her daughter would start fighting. It just made for the most entertaining Seders. She would be reading all slow, and her daughter would be like, “Mom you gotta pick it up.” So she would read it faster, and then at the end, she would be like, “Oh, we didn’t really do Seder this year, did we? I guess you’re not into it; you read it so quickly.” So they would start yelling and bickering.

We had some traditions with Passover that grew. Like my friend’s dad would always have the Elijah Glass. And then there is always a fight because there is a part with four children and there was four of us, me, my brother, my friend, and his sister. And there was a part with like the simple child and the wicked child. So we always fought over who was the simple child and who got to be the wicked child. You wanted to be the wicked one.

There was always the hiding of the motzah. My friend’s grandmother would hide the motzah in the house and kids would team up together and tear through the house to see who could find it first.

His grandmother would cook a brisket. So good. Motzah ball soup. We could get real Jewish.

Interviewer: And you guys didn’t really have the opportunity to get to eat that type of food?

Interviewee: We would never have that growing up. It was always like, “Ooh it’s Passover, we get to eat Motzah Ball soup.” The Seders were always super quick and not really religious. It was just fun.


This is clearly a story about struggling to find one’s identity, as he says above that he never felt like he fit in at his all white school because of his race. I think that by turning to Judaism he found something about his difference to celebrate. That his culture no longer ostracized him from everyone else, but rather included him into this two family Seder. It is clear that the religious aspects of the dinner were not really that important because that was never why anyone really wanted to do it in these families in the first place. It seems like it is so much more about understanding and celebrating ones identity and background. With Passover and my informant’s friends grandmother, my informant was able to experience and celebrate what it was like to be Jewish; what it was like to be different. The grandmother served as the guardian into that world for my informant’s family.


About the Interviewed: Charly Cohen is a student at the University of Southern California majoring in Theatre. Her background is nomadic, having been born in Kentucky, moved to Washington, then to Israel, then to Vancouver, and back to Washington again! Her ethnic backdrop is Jewish. She’s a fellow classmate.

Charly and I had gotten onto the subject of Jewish holidays. I asked her about Passover and her experiences in celebrating it.

Charly: “Passover revolves around a meal called the “Seder”, which means “order”. It refers to a number of things you’re expected to do around the celebration of the meal. You go through a retelling of the story of Exodus, when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, from slavery. You go through the templates, drink four traditional glasses of wine, and sing songs.”

I asked her about any differences she might have experienced celebrating Passover in Israel versus the United States.

Charly: “Passover in Israel is very different from Passover in the United States. It varies based on levels of Judaism. Many people like to think of Jews as sort of one conglomerate – ‘thing’, but there are a ton of denominations. My particular Judaism is based on my experiences at summer camp.”

“People from all sorts of different walks came to the camp –  So you get a different sort of people who celebrate these holidays in different ways.”

“In Israel, I’ve found that the Seders tend to be shorter. It cuts right to the chase, but the after celebration tends to be longer. The last Seder I went to here [in America], the story was told before the meal, but that was it, there wasn’t much afterwards.”

I asked if she felt that way her family celebrated Passover was any different than the way other families celebrated it.

Charly: “Sort of-  there are general guidelines that the observers have to follow, as laid out in the ‘Haggadah’ [Passover Texts], but many families celebrate it in their own ways.”


Passover is a holiday with important historical and religious significance. Those who celebrate it typically follow a strict custom, though traditions vary upon where/who are celebrating it.

Though not Jewish myself, I grew up in a community of pretty active members of the faith. Hearing a summary of Passover and the traditions that come with it was very enriching. Traditions can be rigid, but they also exemplify the celebration and make events like Passover special.



When Moses got the Torah tablets (Ten Commandments) from God, at the top of Mt. Sinai, he stood on the top of Mt. Sinai and spoke the Ten Commandments to the children of Israel/Jewish people, who were all standing at the base of the mountain. Like you do, he said certain words and everyone at the bottom heard something different from each other, which is also what happens in conversation — you don’t hear exactly what someone says, because you have to interpret everything you hear.

A midrash is a story that was originally told by rabbis in order to fill in character story/background outside of the canonical text of the Torah. Over time, these stories would become passed down and written down in their own right, and though they are considered canonical now, they were originally told from the speculation of rabbis rather than the word of God, and are always told with that distinction.

The informant first learned this midrash around elementary school, from her father, and finds the story personally important to her because it gives her, as a Jewish person, the permission to interpret the text to be what she wants/needs it to be, and for that to be allowed. If someone else gets something else from a text than she does, then they can both be good interpretations without having to fight for authenticity.

I spoke to my informant during an on-campus event.

I think it’s really interesting that a canonical religious text actually gave a lot of leeway to individual interpretations, and that those interpretations then got folded back into the general religious understanding.

I think the meaning that my informant gathered from the midrash is also beautiful, and uniquely suited to her kind of sensibilities. I’m not that familiar with the Old Testament, or with Jewish traditions at all, so to hear someone speak about her religious practice in a way I, someone who isn’t religious, could understand helped me gain a new perspective on both her religion and her.

Kabbalat shabbat rituals

After the Sabbath starts, is that part of any eating ritual is that before you eat, you wash your hands in a ritual way just with water and say a prayer. Between saying the prayer and eating a piece of bread, you can’t talk. When you have a family or guests over, it takes a moment for everybody to go through the ritual before blessing the bread and partaking in it together.

In the few minutes that it takes for people to come back and sit back down at the table, no one can talk, but everyone will hum songs. These tunes are just known from growing up together, and sometimes it’s just the head of the house humming it and sometimes other people will join in, but it makes the space very happy. There’s no reason for it other than just to make the space beautiful.

Literally means “the welcome of shabbat (Sabbath).” Practically, all the blessings and songs and rituals that you do to welcome the Sabbath in on Friday night, though there are rituals, such as the one listed above, that you can do on the Sabbath itself.

The idea behind it: making things beautiful to welcome in the Sabbath — you’re not just celebrating, but you’re doing it even though you don’t need to. Generally, it means being unnecessarily fancy for the Sabbath, e.g. cleaning the house, wearing fancy clothes, getting out nice dishes.

The informant has a memory of her grandfather always humming when her family would come over on Friday nights, or when he came over on Friday nights. He’s a huge part of her life, and one of her greatest inspirations.

I spoke to my informant during an on-campus event.

During my undergrad years at USC, I sometimes went over to my Jewish friend’s house to partake in their shabbat dinners. I never knew there were religious rituals attached to it, but this one really captivates me because of its inherent quietness. When many people think of rituals or festivals, they think of noise and excitement, but this is one ritual that’s incredibly low-key in practice, but still shows a strong devotion to and respect of the religious rite.

The Afikomen: A Passover Tradition

“On a Passover seder, the adults hide the afikomen—a special piece of matzah [unleavened bread]—and the kids have to find it. (Usually, the adults hide it in really dumb places, like under a book.)  Our family, though, does this the other way around: the kids hide it, and the adults have to find it. I think this tradition comes from my Grandpa Ned’s side of the family.

“We always plan out our hiding places in advance, and try to make them good enough that the adults won’t be able to find the afikomen. Once, we opened up an old computer, put the afikomen inside, put the computer back together, and turned the computer on. My favorite hiding spot, however, was one I thought of last year: my friends and I opened up the smoke detector, took out all of the electrical equipment (so that the afikomen would fit in it), and put the afikomen there; meanwhile, we hid the electrical equipment somewhere else.

“When the adults were searching, one of them actually suggested looking inside the smoke detector. My dad, though, said that ‘there’s no way it could fit in there with all of the electrical equipment,’ because he didn’t think that we would take it out. Finally, when the adults gave up, I showed them the smoke detector electrical components to give them a hint. My dad had no idea what the equipment was, so I told him to hook it up to a battery. He said, ‘What is this? Am I going to get a secret coded message telling me where the afikomen is?’ When he connected a battery, the equipment made the sound of the smoke alarm, so he finally figured out where the afikomen was hidden.”

This tradition of hiding the afikomen has long been a part of the Jewish holiday of Passover, an eight-day festival that celebrates redemption from slavery in Egypt. The seder (a Hebrew word meaning ‘order’) is a ritual feast that families carry out in their homes at the start of Passover. Since a seder cannot end until the afikomen is eaten, hiding the afikomen has almost become a ritualized prank.

My informant feels that the afikomen tradition makes the holiday of Passover more meaningful and memorable for him personally, as it is one of the main reasons that he looks forward to Passover each year. He definitely intends to pass this tradition along to his children, stating that “I would definitely want them to come up with creative hiding places.”

The afikomen custom also reflects this holiday’s focus upon the younger generation. Seders customarily involve rituals in which children ask adults questions about the holiday; the Haggadah, a text that Jews read on Passover, even advises adults upon how to answer different sorts of questions from children. The afikomen ritual fits naturally into the seder, as it serves to keep children actively engaged with the holiday in the face of a long series of prayers.

Jewish Confirmation

Maddy Heyman

Los Angeles, California

April 24, 2012

Folklore Type: Ritual

Informant Bio: Maddy Heyman is one of my apartment mates and good friends. She is a twenty year old Sophomore and double major in Theatre and Narrative Studies at The University of Southern California. She is from St. Paul, Minnesota and has lived there her whole life. Maddy is a very active member of her theatre community back in St. Paul. She also has acted and directed shows at USC. Although she is thriving in college despite tearing her meniscus and finding out she has mild Crohn’s disease, she is very attached to her home, family, friends, and Theatre community in St. Paul. Maddy is Jewish.

Context: Maddy and I were in our dimly lit apartment late in the night around midnight when I asked her to share some theatre folklore knowing she is a Theatre major. After she told me the theatre ritual, she said there was another ritual they do with her form of Judaism that is also really important to her.

Item: A Jewish ritual more specific to my form of Judaism, er Reformed Jew, is confirmation at fifteen or sixteen. It’s not like Bar or Baht Mitzvahs. Then you become a Jewish adult in the community. Reformed Jews get that at thirteen you’re not old enough to decide you’re gonna be a Jew adult. With Confirmation, you take a year and really study what it means to be a Jew. We looked controversial issues like birth control, homosexuals, and stem cell research. At the end we wrote confessional statements. They allowed us to confirm our faith but like on our own terms which was super cool. You can be like I accept it but I believe this or I wanna think about it this way (hand gestures on each side). Also we learned a lot about other religions, and why we would want to be Jews. I really got to decide and realize, yes, I want to be Jewish and hopefully raise my kids Jewish. It culminates a year of learning. At the end it culminates into a service where we read our statements and then they get published in a program.

Informant Analysis: I don’t know when it started. Just know it started cause they knew thirteen was too young, and we needed the chance to experience more before we make the big decision.

Analysis: Maddy identifies with this ritual because as she said it really helped her learn about the important decision she was going to have to make and helped her make it. This ritual is a reaction to a ritual of the past. Instead of changing the ritual the Reformed Jews added a new one. It is an example of Religious ideas changing over time.

  Alex Williams

Los Angeles, California

University of Southern California

ANTH 333m   Spring 2012