We had just spent the day at Disney World, and our overexcited 16-month-old daughter was crying hysterically. She couldn’t stop screaming, the tears streaming down her face, barely catching her breath to pause, only to let out more hysterical shrieks. I checked and changed her diaper, offered a new fresh bottle, bathed her, undressed her, put on fresh clothes, put on the TV, but nothing worked.
An frantic hour passed by, and then another, and another, while my husband and I desperately tried to stop her crying. Finally, a thought struck me—a superstitious thought about “Ayen Hara” (the Evil Eye), perhaps placed on her by a fellow Disney attendee.
With nothing to lose, I carried her into the bathroom myself, and locked the door. Then, with a heart full of love and a mouth full of saliva, I viciously spat at her three times right in the forehead.
“What are you doing in there?” my husband banged on the door.
“I’m fixing our daughter! Leave me alone!” I shouted back.
She stopped crying, my spittle dribbling a tiny bit down her smooth forehead. She stuck her thumb in her mouth, cuddled her sweet little head on my shoulder, and fell promptly asleep. I carefully wiped the spit up, smoothing it deep into her hairline, so he wouldn’t see it before I opened the door to him standing right there.
“Wow! you stopped the crying! What did you do in there?”
“Nothing— just an old Hasidic trick. Nothing you would know.”
He let me pass into the floral-wallpapered room and I placed her in the crib. She snored gently.
“What did you do?”
“You had to do something,” my husband insisted. “She cried for over three hours non-stop. You went into the bathroom, and in less than a minute she stopped. Tell me, what did you do?’
I paused. “I spat on her. Fine. Are you happy now?”
“Spat? What kind of a mother are you?”
Then I began crying. The heat of the day, her relentless crying, his skepticism about my use of a little magic, all took a toll on me.
“Someone must have given her an Ayen Hara, maybe at ‘It’s A Small World’ It had to be that because I tried everything to stop her crying and nothing, nothing at all worked. So once I figured it out, I spat at her. And look! It was true because she stopped crying the second I spat.”
He looked at me with narrowed eyes.
“You are crazy, you know that? Who ever heard of such a thing?”
“Didn’t your mother or grandmother say ‘ptui, ptui, ptui’ to ward off the evil eye?” I asked him. Sure, he grew up in South Africa, but the superstition runs deep and I was sure his relatives did some sort similar ritual whenever discussing something great or amazing or beautiful about their family.
He acknowledged this was true, but without actual spiting.
I come from an illustrious line of Hungarian Hasidic Rabbis. I have what my extended family calls a “mixed marriage,” because I am not married to a man with a pedigree to match my own. His family is originally from Lithuania. They are serious Jews. They pray on time, follow the letter of law, and believe in fixed destinies.
My family rarely prayed on time, as they waited until they felt a ripe moment of connection to speak with God. They fudged certain aspects of the law, when needed. If there was any sort of crisis, they fervently employed superstitious practices to influence Fate with a capital F. Such as spitting.
We wore our underwear inside out if we had an important appointment, say, with a doctor. We had red strings from Rachel’s Tomb, spirited out of Israel, worn fastidiously on our wrists. We threw salt with abandon, knocked on tables like woodpeckers, stuck silverware that had fallen on the floor into a flower pot for 24 hours to “cleanse” it from the fall, and placed garlic cloves and camphor in the corners of our bedrooms to confuse evil spirits.
And we spat. Gallons. We were in a constant battle, both with the Evil Eye, and the Yezter Hora, our doubly-named Satan that lived not only in Hell, but insidiously, deep inside us. Both of these forces were very strong, and we needed to conjure equally powerful magic to help us. Spitting was one of the most potent weapons in our arsenal in this perpetual war.
But my husband hadn’t seen it in action until that day. So we spent an uncomfortable night in the tiny bed at the hotel. Meanwhile, our daughter slept straight through the night.
He could not get over that I had actually spat on her. And I could not understand what was so awful about spit. Hadn’t his mother, like all mothers around the world, used her own spit to clean his face at those emergency moments of childhood filthiness?
Hadn’t he watched movies of baseball players and gamblers and weight lifters, all of whom spat liberally on their hands prior to pitching the ball, throwing the dice or lifting the bar?
Spit is a magical form of fluid. Ancient cultures used spit to ward off all sorts of evil–maybe as a form of anointment. There are stories of Christ spitting in the eyes of the blind, healing them and restoring their sight. I’d like to think of all those times my mother and grandmothers used their spit on me, whether to clean me or to take away the evil eye, that they were giving an intimate piece of themselves, consecrating me with every dab on my face.
Didn’t he realize that all of us swam in a pool of amniotic fluid, made from and by our mother with a similar consistency and viscosity to her spit? And when moms use their spit on their kids–either as a form of windshield wiper fluid, or to take away the evil eye–it’s perhaps going back to that embryonic time?
I could tell by his confused expression that he had not a clue what I was talking about. I sighed, and promised to repent of my backward pagan ways.
However, I never once failed to spit on my children, if circumstances warranted it, but without broadcasting it. And once my grandchildren arrive into this world, they too will receive the holy sacramental water.