Sorboni Banerjee


Tommy Baxter


Theresa Edo


Erin Jang


Michelle Kearns


Madelyn Rosenberg Lazorchak


Jay Rubin


Sarah Williams

Introductory Essay


By Madelyn Rosenberg Lazorchak

My Aunt Ellen had a special name for me when I was growing up.

“Hey Ugly,” she’d say. “Come over here and give me a hug.” She was my favorite aunt, and my arms always curved just right around her neck. She smelled like marshmallow.

I never doubted that my nickname was rooted in affection, so I never bothered studying myself in the mirror to see if I looked like I’d been run over by a trolley. That was my family’s way of accounting for the physical appearance of my Great Aunt Helen. Her drooping jowls and something about the way she held her arms reminded me of an elderly walrus, but no one ever called her “ugly” to her face; that was just me. It wasn’t until I was about 12 years old that I asked why I hadn’t been called something else, like “Pumpkin” or “Bubbelah” or even “Shorty.”

“Jewish superstition,” Aunt Ellen said.

I should have known. Jewish superstition didn’t explain why the sky was blue, but it explained why my mother would never sew a button until my dress was off my body and in the safety of her sewing room. It explained why my grandmother’s compliments were usually followed by spitting.

My family’s superstitions are descended from no direct Jewish law that I know of, and I doubt spitting is mentioned anywhere in the Kabbalah. But Jews are known for taking their traditions seriously. The traditions related to superstition have been passed down from generation to generation, polished like the green Lemans we treated as if it were a Cadillac.

For a religion that believes in one God and no hell, Jewish folklore is filled with devils and spirits. The Jews don’t own them. The spirits, along with the evil eye, belong to many religions and countries, having started, it is believed, in the Middle East’s ancient Sumer, and spreading out in a ring toward India, Spain, Britain and North Africa.

Because Jews were chosen to bear so many burdens, it makes sense that superstitions would have plagued us, too, and so it became necessary to take precautions against them.

I’m not sure my mother really believed, as my grandmother did, that she would be sewing shut my womb if she sewed my dress while I was wearing it, but that doesn’t mean she tempted fate. (The anecdote, according to my grandmother, was for me to chew a piece of thread if any hemming had to take place on my actual person. The thread-in-mouth anecdote is the same for people who believe sewing has nothing to do with the womb, but with death — the sewing of a shroud.)

In my aunt’s family, you never let the spirits hear you say a child was pretty, because that would guarantee that the child would grow up to be ugly. Bragging or drawing attention to good luck would end it, so you either said the opposite or you spit like my grandmother did: ptu, ptu, once on either side of the person you were complimenting. It wasn’t a very scientific form of protection, but it seemed to work. I suppose they are easily fooled, these spirits. Or else we are just more intelligent, keinahora. The Yiddish word, which comes from kein ayin horain, means, literally, “let no evil eye focus on such goodness.” The expression is used to ward off what is in America is known as a simple jinx, the same jinx that keeps people tight-lipped when they’re applying for a new job or putting a contract on a house.

Some Jewish superstitions can be traced back thousands of years — to the desert, I like to think, which is where most things Jewish seem to begin. There is, for example, the superstition that induces Jewish grandparents to count chickens and children almost backwards: not one, not two, not three. Rabbis trace that superstition to a Torah portion, which describes Moses taking a census. He counted the children of Israel not physically, but by the coins they threw into a pot. Counting heads was considered bad luck. Saying “not one,” is supposed to again muddle the spirits, whose IQ I won’t begin to estimate here.

A number of superstitions are documented in the 19th century folk stories of Shalom Aleichem. Most of his characters would spit — three times instead of twice, to chase away evil spirits. In one of the Tevye stories (the character was later the subject of “Fiddler on the Roof,” though the play was written by someone else), Golde has a dream that her Grandmother Tzeitl is carrying a full pail of milk under her apron, shielding it — and therefore, the family cow — from the evil eye.

Directly translated, Shalom Aleichem means “Peace Be Unto You,” though he was born Solomon Rabbinowitz. He changed his name so that he would be seen as “one of the people,” though in Jewish superstition, names were changed for other reasons, most often when a child was sick. My friend Dana’s mother had polio as a child in Hungary. When she was stricken, her parents “sold” her to the neighbors across the street, and changed her name from Sara to Esther in an attempt to elude the Angel of Death. That superstition seems to be lost in today’s America. Too much paper work, I imagine.

Some of the superstitions seem quaint, on a parallel with the lucky penny. Drop a small ball of white bread in a glass of water. If it sinks, you’re cursed; if it floats, you’re safe. Some are chilling. If you hear your name in a rooster’s crow, it means you are about to die. Others I find perfectly well reasoned, even in a post-Einstein world.

When a Jewish woman becomes pregnant, for example, you do not say “mazel tov,” the Hebrew for “congratulations” or “good luck.” You say “be’sha’a tovah,” which means “in good time” or “when the time is right.” It is a recognition that congratulations are due, but that there are human, physical forces that could prevent the cycle of birth from being complete.

This relates to another superstition, the one that explains why, at more than eight months pregnant, I don’t have anything in my house that indicates a baby is on the way. My rounded stomach is the only sign of it, and I’m hoping the spirits will assume I just need to spend a little more time at the gym. This is how my mother did things, and if we revert to tradition at times of vulnerability, than I’m reverting. I’m also driving my gentile mother-in-law a little nuts.

“When your mother had you, women were in the hospital for at least a week,” Sally Ann said. “Today it’s two days. The baby’s going to be sleeping in a drawer.”

I try to reassure her that a bassinet will be properly stored in a neighbor’s basement. She still wants to see a completed nursery. But if something goes wrong, I don’t want to return home to a pastel room with a changing table and three teddy bears. I watched a friend go through this last summer with a stillborn child; the pastels added to his nearly unbearable pain. He understands my paranoia, though some of my Jewish friends do not. Superstitions have always varied from family to family, street to street. My mother likes to say it all depends on where your ancestors lived in Russia. There’s a world of difference between Minsk and Pinsk.

My relatives came from just outside Odessa, led by my great, great grandmother Clara, who is labeled in black-and-white photos as Big Baba. They fled pogroms and Cossacks, carrying only what they could take on their backs.

In Big Baba’s case, that was her husband, David. He was sick at the time they traveled, and could not walk the seven miles to the boat. Big Baba walked those miles, with David’s arms around her neck. There was no room for jewels or china — if the poor Jewish family had ever owned either. No room for little Russian nesting dolls. And so they carried each other, along with recipes for blintzes and Passover walnut cake. They carried their superstitions and they started a new life in a country where modern American rabbis taught them to fear God, not roosters.

I do not spit very often or in the traditional way, but when I do, I have found that I have amazingly good aim. I come by it naturally; it is my inheritance.