Tag Archives: jewish custom

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.


Taboo of Discussing the Baby during Pregnancy

Main piece: The idea that you don’t talk about it (the baby). You don’t talk about it, you don’t bring the furniture in the house, buy the furniture but can’t open it, or put it together until the baby’s born. You come home from the hospital and have to put the crib together. In the day, when your father was born, you stayed in the hospital after you gave birth for a couple of days. So you (or the husband) had time. People that weren’t you, giving birth. So probably a month before I was due to have the baby, we went to Hutzler’s, which at the time was a very lovely department store, and we bought everything that we needed. Furniture, clothes, everything. And when the baby was born, Z [her husband] called Hutzler’s and told them to deliver tomorrow or whatever, and that’s why we did. Because you just want to make sure everything is alright. 

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-meise” (Yiddish), translated to “grandmother’s fable”, or a more serious version of old wive’s tales that are often accompanied by superstitions. The baby she is discussing was her first child (of three), my father, who was born in May 1965. 

Context: This practice is customary for Jewish couples. During a celebration for my father’s birthday, my mother brought up a (non-Jewish) co-worker, whose wife didn’t want to know anything about the gender of the baby, or even talk about her pregnancy before the baby was born. My mom then told the co-worker, “how Jewish of her”. When I asked for an explanation, my grandmother interjected with this story about her pregnancy with my father. She takes this superstition incredibly seriously, having heard it from her mother, who heard it from her mother.

Analysis: This custom seems to exist to protect the emotional and well-being of couples who may end up losing their baby. As there is a high risk in giving birth, especially prior to the invention of modern birthing practices, having the room set up/furniture ready for a baby that may not end up coming home could be emotionally and financially taxing on expectant parents. With this practice, not talking about the baby or preparing for its arrival home until after its birth creates the illusion of low to no expectations in the liminal and risky space of pregnancy. Over time, this has almost become a superstition like a jinx, that talking about the baby will result in bad luck and potentially riskier birth. 

You Can’t Give Away a Dead Person’s Shoes

Main piece: When someone dies, after the mourning period is over and it’s appropriate to give the clothes away that can still be worn, and you can give them to whoever you want – the recipient can take everything. Not the shoes. You don’t wear a dead person’s shoes. 

Background: My informant is a seventy-nine year old Jewish woman living in Baltimore, Maryland. 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: A previous informant was discussing a traditional Jewish practice of washing your hands after a funeral. A discussion ensued about Jewish funeral rites and traditions, and my informant mentioned this one. My informant learned that from her mother, and takes the practice incredibly seriously, though it is not a situation she personally has faced. However, she does recall her mother refusing to offer her father’s shoes to family friends after his passing. 

Analysis: My informant had no idea why this practice existed, nor is there any talmudic or religious reason connected to or behind this. It is possible that unlike shirts or pants, shoes cannot be washed, and so the person who used to inhabit them can never fully be removed from the shoes. It’s also possible that, pre-industrialization, a person only owned one pair of shoes, and therefore had a higher sentimental value/significance to the person. The shoes would also be tailor made for that individual, so it is possible that the family just couldn’t give away the person’s shoes, because they wouldn’t fit anybody else. 

Dreydl

“So, dreydl. It’s like this Jewish game that you play for the holiday of Hanukkah. And you spin a little top and it lands on one of four things, uh, which is either the letters gimmel, nun, shin, or hey. Uh, on a gimmel you take all of the money that’s in the pot, on a hey you get half of it, on a shin you put some of yours in, and on a nun you get nothing. And you take turns until someone gets all the money. It’s usually played with fake money called gelt, it’s chocolate and it kinda tastes bad, but like that’s the game. The letters…I don’t know what the Hebrew is, but it translates to a great miracle happened there, and there means Jerusalem.”

Note: The letters are:

נ – nun

ג – gimmel

ה – hey

ש – shin.

The Hebrew phrase is נס גדול היה שם, which is pronounced as “Nes gadol hahah sham.” It means what he said it means. 

Throwing Candy After the Torah Portion in Bat/Bar Mitzvahs

Main Content:

M: Me, I: Informant

I: Oh I just remembered another one. The traditions I was most excited for when I got bat mitzvahed is like after you finish your Torah portion I think or half Torah portion, um everyone in the synagogue has a piece of candy and they throw it at ya.

M+I: *laughs a little*

I: They throw the candy at you.

M: Uh-huh (agreement)

I: Uh and that’s just you know as like a congratulatory thing, like ‘Get it,’ you know. Like , it’s like, the congregation saying ‘sweet! You did it.’

M: Welcome to adulthood *laughs*

I: yes, yes, that one’s really fun, because I like candy and I think its fun to have things thrown at me, you know.

Context: This practice occurs while doing or watching a bar/bat mitzvah which is the coming of age ceremony done typically by Jewish children when they are 13. The candy throwing occurs after the Torah or half Torah portion of the ceremony. My informant had this at her bat mitzvah ceremony and has participated in the throwing of candy at others.

Analysis: The bar/bat mitzvah represents the transition from childhood and adulthood. Thus, while in the midst of the ceremony, the ‘child’ is in this liminal place where he/she isn’t quite a child, but isn’t quite an adult yet. They are in the process of taking on a new identity. Pranks/joke/riddles and various other traditions are common in other liminal states. In a way, getting candy thrown at you by your entire temple is a prank/joke to test you and help ease you into your new identity, adulthood.