“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.