Grandma Went to Barnard, But Still Believes in Shtetl Superstitions


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.

Renee SeptimusRenée Septimus is a social worker and Jewish educator. She lives with her husband Joe on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is the very proud mom of four married children and a savta (that's Hebrew for grandmother) to a (growing) bunch of absolutely perfect grandchildren!

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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