I was a home-schooled child so I was primarily exposed to Jewish superstitions, although I don’t recall too many. However, I remember that my clean freak of a grandmother wouldn’t wash clothes or dishes or carry out the garbage for as long as someone was en route, whether it was a major travel involving flying across the country that spanned over eight time zones or a simple train ride from town to town. Cleaning the house while kinfolk peregrinated was bad luck. When someone was embarking on a trip, we all had to sit down closely together for a few minutes so that his journey would be easy and pleasant. When one of us took an exam, my grandma sat in her chair diligently badmouthing the person while keeping her finger smeared in ink. Supposedly, that brought good luck. And better marks.
My best childhood friends were two Tatar sisters, whose aunt scrubbed the house till it shined regardless of the family voyages. When she was done, she meticulously replaced the blue eye trinkets to their dedicated corners. “Keeps Shaitan away,” she revealed to us, her own brown eyes shining earnestly. Shaitan was sort of a cross between a man and a spirit, akin to a jinn. No one have ever seen them, but they were known for their bad deeds.
I was six when I read a story about a boy who had a terribly misfortunate day because he fell victim to his superstition of a black cat crossing his path – and opted for a circuitous route, which led him into trouble. Black cats weren’t part of the Judaic belief system so even after I re-read the story three times, I still couldn’t understand why the kid was so scared of the poor animal. I asked my mother.
“It’s a superstition,” she explained, mentioning something about omens, premonitions, and the weird folk who believed cats and devils were one and the same. “Some people think if they see a black cat, they must turn back and take a different route.”
I didn’t fully understand the explanation but the superstition took. Not only would I turn back seeing a cute black kitty, but I’d scurry away if I saw an albino one with a speckle of gray. It didn’t matter that the story actually made fun of the boy and denounced the irrational belief. I was hooked. I never took after my grandma’s customs of leaving the dishes in the sink until the plane landed, but the feline fear was settled deeply and solidly.
Luckily, one day a brilliant girl in my school told me there was an antidote to the catty spell: I simply had to spit three times over my left shoulder and knock on a tree. Perhaps, I became too obsessed with the Christian superstition because I completely missed the very intense Jewish one, letting it lay latent for twenty years. I was totally unprepared for it.
“I’m having a baby shower,” I happily told my mother over the phone. I was due in a month and I expected her to share my excitement about the party.
“Are you out of your mind?” she shouted at me instead. “Jews don’t celebrate until the baby is born. Jews don’t buy gifts until the child is delivered. It’s a bad sign! Something will go wrong!”
“My American Jewish friends had baby showers and their babies came out fine,” I tried to argue, but my mother was unrelenting. To her, the tradition of celebrating a baby before it was brought into this world was a heresy, a sign of bad luck and the worst misfortune an expecting mother could inflict on her unborn offspring. She wasn’t relinquishing her belief, I wasn’t giving up my party. We had a deadlock.
Our impasse took two weeks to resolve. The agreement was – I got to bask in my prenatal glory, peek into the lavishly stuffed gift bags, and shake the colorful boxes with wrapped-around ribbons holding them to my ear – to guess the contents. What I couldn’t do was to take all that coveted cutesy gear home. When my party ended, my mother packed her car to the brim and drove away with all my baby garb, which she diligently arranged and kept in her basement until her grandson arrived into this world safe and sound. Needless to say she didn’t bring a single present to the party, but ever since she could hold the little blue-eyed human in her arms, she showered a bounty of gifts on him to the point I had to start sending some of them back.
The funny part is – Jewish by ethnicity and an atheist by upbringing, the only real superstition that still bothers me is the proverbial black cat!