Tag Archives: jewish custom

Shehecheyanu

Background: Informant is a 19 year old student. Their parents both grew up in Venezuela. Their mom’s side is Spanish and Italian and their dad’s is Spanish and Israeli. Informant is from Texas and Miami and now resides in Los Angeles. They identify as Latin American and Jewish.

Informant: My Jewish family, everytime we’d move or anytime we’d go somewhere new, like before we came to our new house we’d say this prayer: “Shehecheyanu.” Which is a Jewish prayer for gratitude whenever you experience something new and you need to bless it. So everytime we did something for the first time we’d say it together as a family. 

Reflection: This was a really nice one to hear as it had both cultural and familial significance for the Informants life. This prayer is unique as it is said in different places and at different times to check in with the world and remember to practice gratitude. I loved hearing how the informant has used it throughout their lives, specifically when moving to a new place so they can bless the home.

Foreskin Burial

Background: Informant is a 19 year old, Jewish American college student from New Hampshire. They shared this story about their family and how it relates to their Jewish tradition and culture. The informant has been through Jewish education and experiences the holidays every year.

Informant: So, in Jewish mysticism and some spiritual mysticism more broadly, there’s a tradition in which foreskin of a child, of a newborn is buried next to a forefather. So, when my cousin gave birth to her child not really sure… second cousin once removed I believe? They flew from Florida to Massachusetts to bury the foreskin next to my grandfather. It had something to do with the wellbeing of the child and honoring the forefather.

Me: Can you tell me a little bit about the Jewish tradition of circumcision? What does it symbolize?

Informant: The bris is 8 days after a boy is born, male assigned at birth, if you will. It has a relationship to the lilith which is a separate story, but it’s one of the ways to protect from the lilith. Their foreskin’s cut off, not really sure why. I actually have no idea why. I just know it’s a tradition. 

Reflection: This tradition was really fun to hear as it’s obviously a kind of bizarre idea to those who aren’t within the culture. However, it was so enjoyable to hear the informant give their account of the tradition, and you could hear in the tone of their voice how they felt. This experience gives us an idea of how multiple cultures can exist within one person. In this example, the informant had a bit of shame surrounding the tradition as it would be frowned upon in Western culture. However, there is also a sense of pride in their culture as they describe it’s significance.

Bar/Bat Mitzvah Chair Lifting

Main Piece: 

What is your experience with this tradition?

“At the party, we were doing the hora. They bring in a chair, without arms even though I asked for arms. Four men lifted the chair up. One person was pushing harder than the others. Being pushed up in the chair with no arm rests. I asked to be put down. It happens during Hava Negila”

Why do you think this is a thing?

“Probably to single out the person and make it known that it’s their day and that this whole ceremony is about them. Maybe it’s spiritual and you’re getting closer to god? It’s kind of stupid”

Background/Context:

My informant is my roommate. She was raised in Conservative Judaism and had her Bat Mitzvah when she turned 13. A Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the Jewish coming of age ceremony that happens when a child turns 12 or 13. Hava Negila is the song that Jewish people traditionally dance the Hora to. The Hora is a traditional dance that involves dancing in concentric circles. The Bar/Bat Mitzvah teen is lifting in the center of the Hora circles. This story was collected when we were talking about Judaism during dinner.

Analysis:

This tradition is practiced by Jews of all observance levels and ethnic backgrounds at Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and the majority of Jews have no idea why we do it. We weren’t commanded to lift people in chairs through religious texts or by our religious leaders, it’s just a tradition that Jews practice. Some people think that the “lifting” component has religious connotations, but most Jews agree that it’s just for fun and to highlight the Bar/Bat Mitzvah teen on their special day. The experience of having a chair with no arms and being asked to be put down is a common one, and I myself didn’t have a great time being lifted at my own Bat Mitzvah. 

Washing One’s Hands After a Funeral

Main piece: There’s a tradition of washing your hands after a funeral so you don’t bring death into the house. If you’ve been near a dead body, you want to get the death off your hands. You don’t want to bring death into your house. Even after my dad’s funeral, friends of my mother, who had stayed back to help with the catering and the flowers, they put a pitcher outside. I was impressed by all that actually. It’s what you do. Some cemeteries have a water fountain. Outside Jewish funeral homes there’s a place to wash your hands. 

Background: My informant is a 51 year-old Jewish woman. The majority of the funerals she has attended have been in Jewish cemeteries with Jewish burial practices. She doesn’t remember where she learned the practice exactly, but she recalls vividly seeing the pitcher of water outside a Jewish funeral home at her aunt’s funeral when she was fourteen. The logic makes sense to her, and she has partaken in this ritual many times before. 

Context: I was talking to my informant about Jewish traditions, and this was the first one that occurred to her. 

Analysis: This practice makes a lot of sense. A funeral is a liminal space, as it is the final celebration of the life of someone who is now deceased. With that comes a lot of uncertainty, and fear that death can come for anyone else next. By washing your hands before entering a home, you don’t cross the doorway between a graveyard or a cemetery – a place of death, and your house – a place where you live/where life happens. This also promotes the idea that death can linger/cling to a live person, and having a ritualistic cleansing of death from your hands encourages a sense of protection, and that it won’t come for you next. 

Red Ribbon Against Evil Eye

Main piece: A red ribbon to ward off the evil eye. It can be a little ribbon pinned on the outside, or on the undergarments, and especially if there are people in the room that you’re going into that may not like you or be jealous of you, and you have to have a red ribbon. Not all the time.

I don’t know all of it, but the evil eye is against negativity. There are people who don’t wish you well, not you specifically. Just like there are people who want everything wonderful to happen for you and with you. But there are people who don’t. They say they have the evil eye. And people wear a red ribbon to ward off the evil eye. You pin the red ribbon on your heart, underneath. Not showing. It makes you live. The evil eye can’t hit me where I live, my heart. The idea is that if you’re going to be around people that you know are not on your side, and will try and wish bad things for you, you ward off those spirits by wearing a red ribbon, bounces right off. 

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. She is also my grandmother. She describes herself as a follower of “bubbe-meises” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fables”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions. 

Context: Her husband (who does not believe in the red ribbon superstition, nor most other ones) immediately brought up the red ribbon when I asked my informant about the superstitions she follows. My informant believes the red ribbon to be an incredibly held belief, and does not remember where she heard it from, but doesn’t believe it to be an exclusively Jewish superstition. 

Analysis: The evil eye is an interesting variation of the Jungian collective unconsciousness; the idea that there are people out there who simply wish you badly, and this subconscious/unspoken malediction could potentially cause real harm. This superstition revolves around the folk object of the red ribbon, and its placement. While my informant was not sure why the ribbon had to be red, or the significance of it, red as a color representing good luck/good fortune has been true in many different cultures/religions, such as China and Hinduism. The red ribbon working as a talisman represents a barrier between any potential harm and the soul of its wearer, which is emphasized by my informant’s placement of the ribbon (she has worn it both over and under her clothes) next to her heart, which serves as an example of James Frazer’s sympathetic magic. The ribbon serves as a piece of contact/contagious magic, which relies on “an action or an element that was once touched by or connected to the designated target of a
magical act” (115).

When asked about this placement, she tapped her heart and said “that’s where I live”, which indicates that it is less physical/bodily harm to be wary of, and that the soul is what is spiritually affected by the evil eye. My informant also emphasized that she does not wear the ribbon all the time (like she never wears it at home or when she visits family), but only when she believes she is going to be entering a situation where people could potentially cause harm unto her. The talisman then acts as a way to safeguard her from the “other”, people outside her social group or identity that could potentially not wish her well, either because of her personally, or the identity group she represents (she does wear the evil eye when she is with new people for the first time, or in crowds). As this is a Jewish custom, and Jews are a minority that have often been persecuted against, it makes sense that people would want a way to feel safe and protected against “evil eyes” in a discreet, non-showy way that establishes their religious or ethnic identity to potential ne’er-do-wells. This practice has also been associated with Kabbalah, and also exists in the variant of a red wool string tied around one’s wrist.

Dundes, Alan, and James George Frazer. “The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” Essay. In International Folkloristics: Classic Contributions by the Founders of Folklore, 109–18. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.