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Dec 2 2010

Grandma Went to Barnard, But Still Believes in Shtetl Superstitions

By at 12:33 pm

Yes, I did it. Just like I did for my own kids.

I put the red bendel (string) on my grandchildren’s cribs.

It’s not like it can hurt. Maybe it really does help. Thank God, my own four kids made it through infancy (k’ayin hara).

That ayin hara (evil eye) is out there–really, I believe it. I do think that we all have powers we don’t understand and if someone’s thoughts or energy can cause evil or disaster, I’ll be ready.

The “evil eye” concept is not unique to Judaism. Many cultures share the belief that a curse, or jinx, can be put on someone through someone else’s envy or dislike, intentionally or unintentionally. And lots of other things can tempt that evil eye, too.

I never walk over children–only around them. That’s why they did not stop growing until they reached average height. (Although my younger daughter Dana is a little short.)

I never sewed any clothing while they were wearing it–not even a button. (Like a shroud, poo, poo, poo!!!) If someone gave them a compliment, I intoned “thank God, k’ayin hara and if I thought bad stuff was coming because of something someone said, I shouted, “God forbid!” spat and said “poo, poo, poo.”

When I was growing up, we weren’t allowed to walk around with only socks on our feet. We had to wear shoes or be barefoot so it wouldn’t (God forbid, poo, poo,poo, k’ayin hara) look like a house of shiva (mourning).

I have a master’s degree and graduated from Barnard magna cum laude majoring in philosophy. So I’m not dumb.

But my father spent his early years in a Polish shtetl and maybe, because of that, I am…well…superstitious.

My Grandma told me that her aunt was once mortally ill in the little town of Tyczyn. To distract and deceive the ayin harah, and the Angel of Death, the town folk made her a mock funeral, complete with casket and eulogies. Tante Gittel recovered. Completely. So there.

So, yes, at the children’s weddings, I made all my kids, kids-in-law, and grandkids wear red bendels. And I brought extra, in case anyone else wanted protection.

You just can’t be sure with the ayin hara. And if a piece if red string can deflect it, so be it.

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7 Responses to Grandma Went to Barnard, But Still Believes in Shtetl Superstitions

  1. Now I know where Madonna got it from. Great essay!

  2. Gail Gordon says:

    I’m with you. I figure it can’t hurt to hedge my bets. But now that I’ve learned a couple more superstitions from your article, don’t burden me with any more . . . please!

  3. Wendy Cooper says:

    If nothing else, anything that gives mom and grandma a greater sense of control and calm has got to be good for the kids too..

  4. Ilana Trachtman says:

    Where can I get a red string?

  5. Joanna Samuels says:

    great piece –pooh pooh pooh!

  6. Deborah Lipstadt says:

    Great piece. Sense of humor with a lot of parental “sechel.” And being wary of the ayin hara clearly did not hurt the final product.

  7. Very interesting article! Now I know what all those little red strings that they hand out at the Kotel are for. How about another article on the importance of the number five?


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