Friday, August 20, 2010

The Book of the (20th) Century

What would be your choice for this distinction? "The Lord of the Rings" was voted to the top in a poll by a British bookstore chain. Americans over the age of 17 would probably prefer "The Great Gatsby." My cousin Allan might choose "The Fountainhead," while I lean towards "Goodbye Columbus." "Mein Kampf" has to be considered given the the cataclysm it foretold. Of course, there is Camus, Hemingway, Freud, among others who helped us look at the modern world.

The Book of the (20th) Century, however, and sadly unsung, is "How to Avoid the Evil Eye" by Brenda Z. Rosenbaum, published by St. Martin 's Press in 1985. It is apparently out of print, but that should not diminish the power of its ideas. It claims, in a self-deprecatory fashion, to be only a "collection of Jewish superstitions." But, can almost 5771 years of history be dismissed as the product of superstition?

Before I sample for you some of the wisdom of "How to Avoid the Evil Eye," allow me to locate the underlying concept as experienced by every Jewish child fortunate enough to grow up with at least one Yiddish-speaking grandparent. For illustrative purposes, I shall call our hearty, growing child Alan. From his earliest years of cognition, Alan heard adults, relatives and strangers alike, say "kinahora" when he was introduced into their presence. Kinahora, or some near-homophone, is a concatenation of the Yiddish phrase, "kein ayin hara" meaning no Evil Eye. The Evil Eye, as we all know, is the simultaneous sower and reaper of bad things, which must be avoided at all costs.

Children especially, given their limited physical and mental abilities, require protection from the Evil Eye and, thus, the frequent utterance of kinahora when dear, cute Alan appears. Sometimes, kinahora is spoken before anything else is said, because the mere sight of Alan causes a concerned adult to take prophylactic measures. More often, kinahora is spoken immediately after an adult utters a word or phrase of praise, admiration, or compliment, to immunize Alan from the danger that such positive attention places him in. The Evil Eye, after all, is drawn to people who are experiencing even a moment's good fortune and aims to lay them low. It doesn't take a winning lottery ticket to attract the Evil Eye, just Alan's Aunt Sophie saying, "He's so tall."

My dear friend Andy, of blessed memory, was a chubby child even before he was a chubby adult. He heard kinahora so often growing up that he was convinced it meant "What a fat kid."

Sometimes, it takes more than saying kinahora to ward off the Evil Eye. The Book of the (20th) Century teaches us:

Changing the name of a sick person diverts the Evil Eye. NB -- Mother Ruth Gotthelf bore the Jewish name Ruchel at birth, but, after a childhood illness, became Chaya Ruchel. Chaya is the female form of life; Chaim would be added for a male. See page 40.

Breaking dishes when an engagement is announced frightens off the Evil Eye that is attracted by a joyous event. P. 26.

To prevent a bad dream, put a prayer book under your pillow. P. 70.

To counteract the Evil Eye, put garlic in a child's ear. P. 19.

Fish arouse amorousness and should therefore be eaten on Friday night. P. 78.

News of serious illness is withheld for three days lest the Evil Eye cause the death of the invalid after overhearing talk of his weakened condition. P. 82.

In taking money out of a safe or purse, never remove all of it. Leave a coin or two for luck. P. 64.

To divert the glance of the Evil Eye, interesting objects may be hung between the eyes of the endangered person. P. 15.

Once a man sets out on a journey, he must not reenter his house if he has forgotten something. He should stand outside and ask to have it handed to him. Otherwise, the forces of the outside world might come into the house, and with them, bad luck. P. 76.

A person dies when he has used up the number of words allotted to him in his lifetime. P. 90.

It is bad luck to move to a lower floor in the same building. P. 55.

Birth can be eased by opening all chests, closets and doors in the house. P. 32.

Sneezing during prayer is a bad omen. P. 80.

If a child plays with his shadow, it will make him stupid. P. 50.

I gave Mother Ruth Gotthelf a copy of this book 25 years ago. She read it carefully, often saying, "That's right" at key passages. As you are no doubt aware, Mother Ruth Gotthelf is now 100 years old, kinahora!

Footnote to history: I was witness to a record-breaking performance on August 19, 2010 when Noam Webber, four days old, went out to a Chinese restaurant for dinner. This breaks the previous record, which I also witnessed, held by Nate Persily on July 10, 1970 at age seven days. Kinahora!

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