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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2019 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

December 14, 2018  RSS feed
Federation

Text: T T T

Superstition

Emilie Socash

Growing up with my maternal grandmother in my home starting when I was 3 brought in a generational perspective that, upon reflection, I see that most of my friends didn’t have. Coupling that with a father raised Catholic, a mother who was the product of American assimilation, and a very homogenous community of generic Christians in the Pacific Northwest, I now know that my upbringing was, well, unorthodox.

In this last edition of the Jewish Press for the 2018 calendar year, I find myself wanting to avoid the evil eye by looking back with gratitude and appreciation for all the year has held.

In the fleeting moment of identifying this column’s topic, I realized how many superstitions I was raised with, and how many I maintain right now. Consider:

• Any scratching of the palm was spotted quickly by Grandma. An itchy left hand meant that money was about come your way, while the right hand was (disappointingly) indicative of a soon-to-come handshake. I often will myself to feel that left-hand itch as I go through the Federation fundraising cycle!

• Forget what you were going to say at the last moment, or have that “it’s on the tip of my tongue!” sensation? Must have been a lie! Your body and brain conspired against you to help you stay on an honest path by simply evaporating that untruth from your mind and mouth!

• Regardless of the season (and consider, I grew up in Washington State, where four distinct seasons exist), if one were to feel a chill unexpectedly, this meant that someone just walked over their grave. As a child, this one was particularly perplexing since I didn’t have a grave purchased, and this was waved away with a uniquely dismissive gesture of the hand. I didn’t think it strange or at all out of the ordinary that my grandmother, her sisters, and all of their spouses had purchased plots at Eden Memorial Park on Sepulveda Boulevard in Mission Hills (Los Angeles). The sisters argued about being buried under a tree and who they would be buried next to.

• When some stroke of misfortune happened, I was reminded that “Bad things happen in threes.” I would scramble to think of two other bad things of recent memory, hoping to close the cycle, and would grasp at things like a headache, a friend’s rebuff, a bad grade, and so forth.

Superstitions aren’t inherently Jewish, nor are they necessarily “approved” thinking by any particular faith. Yet they serve a purpose of helping us make sense of a senseless world, make things a little less ambiguous and a lot more understandable (although, arguably, why must one ponder an itchy palm?).

In researching the topic of superstitions as a way to make meaning, I stumbled on a German word new to me: verstehen, from the German, means the “understanding the meaning of action from the actor’s point of view.” It’s standing in another’s shoes, recognizing that we are not just objects being pushed and pulled by external forces. Rather, verstehen is the action of interpreting social phenomena in a participatory way. The idea was conceptualized by Max Weber, a turn of the century German Jew who suggested that significant world understanding can be developed from looking at the meaning individuals attach to their own actions (rather than on an outsider’s viewpoint).

As we face 2019, what do superstitions, long-dead sociologists, and itchy palms have to do with much of anything?

I suppose that they may have nothing to do with anything, or all to do with everything if we can open our minds enough. As Jewish people, our parents teach us from an early age to challenge authority and question everything. A quick search of “Jewish parenting,” both in exploration for this piece as well as for greater understanding of my own roots, reveals advice that ranges from Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s sensibilities that she is a “Jewish mother before all else” to Shalom Auslander’s quip that there’s only good parenting and bad parenting, not “Jewish” parenting. Lenore Skenazy, host of the reality show World’s Worst Mom and author of Free-Range Kids, suggests that we all worry about worrying, we’re all guided by fear, and how fear can lead to hysteria, which can lead to the ills of blaming and scapegoating – all bad for the kids, yet perhaps a hallmark of our people.

And in our parenting, whether through fear or human values, we embrace verstehen. We explain the very real (such as the need for tzedakah and honesty, for kindness and chesed) and the not-so-real (such as why a palm itches, or a thought is lost to the tip of the tongue). We make sense of our own actions and the actions of others, those real and only real to us.

My daughter’s Omi gave specific instructions upon her departure from each visit: that the bedding in the guest room (upon which she slept) not be changed until she was safely home. I considered it an old wives’ tale, and in fact found that it has Lebanese roots, but despite knowing this was nothing short of nonsense, I never rushed to wash her sheets.

In my own home, whenever one of us notes something good that’s happening, we’ll make a comment about how grateful we are and that we recognize it could change at any moment, theoretically fending off the evil eye. For a largely logic-based family, we still have a hamsa in the kitchen, say “pooh-pooh-pooh,” or even mutter kinehara. I’m grateful for all that 2018 brought to me, my family, my work family, and my community, and in 2019 I hope for this and more… now let me go find some wood to knock on.

Liked it? Loathed it? Want to react? I would welcome your feedback and can be reached at emilie@jewishpinellas.org.


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