Not long ago, she was at a wedding, all dressed up and everyone told her she looked so pretty and then she got an excruciating headache. She called her ya-ya (grandma) and said, "Ya-ya, I think somebody gave me the … Read More

By / February 25, 2009

Not long ago, she was at a wedding, all dressed up and everyone told her she looked so pretty and then she got an excruciating headache. She called her ya-ya (grandma) and said, "Ya-ya, I think somebody gave me the evil eye." Her grandmother asked her if she’d been wearing her underwear inside out and she said yes, of course she had. Her grandmother said a special prayer, (but not out loud), and her headache dissipated.

I’m sitting at the counter of Jackson Hole on Columbus Avenue, waiting for my chocolate chip pancakes and Anna, the American-born daughter of the Greek owner, is packaging up a to-go order and telling me that her family jokes (but not really) about calling grandma’s 1-800-the-evil-eye hotline to remove the evil eye.  

Anna is strikingly pretty and thoroughly modern-looking, and her blend of old world/new world reminds me in many ways of some of my sophisticated but superstitious Jewish friends: Judy, who kisses the mezuzah three times before leaving the house, and who recently was all verjunkt when she had to have surgery on a Thursday instead of on Tuesday – the day of creation when God said "And it was good" twice, which makes Tuesday an especially auspicious day for anything; or, my friend Miriam, a former dancer whom I sat next to at a dinner party recently, and when I asked her how her son was, she said, "Great, puh puh puh!". The evil forces who might be listening in will be attracted to the spit, and it will distract them from making eye contact with her and thus prevent them from giving her the evil eye.  They may not wear tunics and sandals, but Anna and these friends harbor within them the souls of the Sumerians who, 5,000 years ago, wrote about the evil eye on cuneiform tablets. "It’s in my blood," Miriam admits, "the fear of invoking that evil eye."  

"Not everybody in my family believes in it," Anna leans over the counter and clarifies as I drink my coffee. "Some of the more religious ones think it’s superstitious, but I believe in it, absolutely." The concept of the evil eye is actually not antithetical to Biblical teachings and is mentioned in many Biblical books, both Jewish and Christian. The book of Proverbs warns, "Eat not the bread of him that has an evil eye, neither desire his dainty meat."  Jesus (who as a Jew expressed the culture of the time) says that the eye is the lamp of the body and if the eye is bright, then you are full of light, but if you have an evil eye, you’re full of darkness. The ancients believed that light emanated from the heart and exited through the eye, illuminating their surroundings. If, then, one’s heart is dark and evil, that evil will be transmitted through the eye and anyone who is looked upon with that "evil eye," – covetous look – could be injured. From this is derived the Yiddish phrase, uttered after complimenting someone on something, "Kein ayin hora," No evil eye intended, I’m not trying to take it from you. It’s not just religion that seems incompatible with inside-out underwear. In today’s world we are aware that there’s a rational explanation for many of the vicissitudes of life. We know why babies get sick or have diseases: their immune system is compromised or it’s a genetic problem or a thousand other things that can be quantified scientifically. I have long hovered somewhere between a belief in this mysterious, unknowable world, even while feeling slightly condescending toward the irrational and superstitious. When I was 12 and sleeping over at my best friend, Alise’s house, she breathlessly regaled me late one night with stories of vampires, insisting that not only did they exist but they had been sighted in southern Indiana. The only way to ward them off was to drape garlic around the windowsill. Although I was fairly certain vampires were made up and probably pagan in origin, which was rather deliciously forbidden and wonderful, it was also possible that vampires were real and had been created by the Devil. Just as our church taught that demons might slip into one’s house, so might vampires. Finally, I decided you can never be too careful, about either vampires or demons, and I insisted that Alise go downstairs, get garlic and hang it from the windowsill.  (I crept into bed with Alise later, not completely convinced she had put up enough garlic.) Since then, I have thrown salt into the corners of my home to rid myself of invisible, evil spirits. I have lit candles for everything from Shabbat and the high holidays to the souls of the dead, on the theory that the flame will banish darkness and offer protection. I accepted a red string for my wrist from a friend in Israel to keep evil spirits at bay; I am quite fond of my hamsa necklace, which Muslims see as the hand of Fatima, while Jews claim is Miriam’s hand protecting them. (The goddess types will counter that if you blur the outline of the fingers when the hand is facing down, you have the female pubis, proof that it is a symbol of ancient goddess worship. These folks find a pubis on every street corner.) Now, when Anna tells me about a special cushion that she hangs in her car, and a pin with the eye that she wears inside her coat to protect her, (and which again draws attention away from her eyes), I’m thinking, "Hmm, can’t hurt."   "How did the inside-out underwear help?" I ask Anna. "Like, the bad spirits are attracted to it because it’s gross or something?" "I don’t know," she admits. "My grandma told me to do it, and I always do it." I find it endearing that she obeys a custom because of grandma, who did it because of her grandma, in a place many lifetimes away from the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 2009. It’s a relief to accept certain things in life as a mystery and not try to answer why. And I appreciate being reminded over chocolate chip pancakes that the desires of our hearts in part determine our lives and destinies, and that they also impact those of others. When I walk out onto Columbus Avenue and see strangers pass me by, I am mindful to gaze at them with eyes that are bright and if not filled with full-fledged love, at least not with envy, lest I myself transmit the evil eye.

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