“So, when I was younger, um, my grandparents, like my grandparents . . . my parents are older so by nature my grandparents were older and my grandfather died in 1995. And I remember he didn’t—I remember my mom telling me he passed away and . . . whatever I just remember sitting, we had like this, it’s called an LDK in Japanese, it’s like just a huge room where we all like . . . there’s a kitchen, living room and I remember sitting there and I remember I sneezed and I was watching TV and my mom was like, ‘Pull up your ears.’ And I was like, ‘What the fuck?’ But it’s a thing! After someone dies and the other person sneezes you pull up your ears because if you don’t pull up your ears it’s like then that’s bad juju . . . So you have to pull up your ears!”
I asked the informant what it means to “pull up your ears” and she demonstrated by taking the top of her ears between her thumbs and forefingers and lightly tugging upwards.
“And I do it all the time now because when I sneeze I instantly think of death and then I’m like, ‘Well, just to be safe . . .’ And I’ll do it if I’m in class too . . . And when my grandmother died two years ago, we were constantly pulling up our ears. Still! My mom still does it.”
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 . . .”
This superstition was fascinating to me because it seems similar to the practice of saying “Bless you!” after someone sneezes, i.e. it is a fairly innocuous action that people do as a way of warding off something much darker. I also think the fact that there are multiple superstitions surrounding the normal bodily function of sneezing is interesting, as it reveals something about the way humans respond to slightly odd and surprising occurrences. I agree with the informant that performing actions like this in order to ward off “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.