In many cultures, there is the concept of the Evil Eye. Unfortunately for me, Judaism is one of them.
Not every Jew grows up believing in the Evil Eye. However, many of us do, especially those with immigrant parents or grandparents from Eastern Europe.
I actually never heard the term, the Evil Eye, until adulthood, when I met another Jewish friend, Barb, in my 20’s. I casually mentioned to Barb that she was lucky not to have caught a nasty flu virus that was going around. Barb responded reflexively by shushing me. When Barb saw my puzzlement, she explained that I must not say such things because of the “Evil Eye.”
Barb explained to me the meaning of the Evil Eye: as Jews, we cannot say something positive or we will tempt fate. The Evil Eye will react by making our worst fears come true. Thus, if I assert that Barb is fortunate flu-wise, the next day she’ll be as sick as a dog.
Barb helped crystallize for me what I experienced growing up, though I didn’t have a term for it. The concept of the Evil Eye explained so many of my family’s odd rituals and belief systems.
While my family never used the term, the Evil Eye, we lived our lives in fear of it. Like Barb, we were discouraged from being optimistic. I had always thought my parents were pessimists; but I realized they were just being superstitious. My family was engaging in an ancient folk ritual to ward off evil spirits.
I do recall my mother frequently talking about a “Kana Hara,” which is another Jewish superstition, a kissing cousin of the Evil Eye. Kana Hara is a Yiddish word for a jinx. By saying or doing something, one may bring on a Kana Hara, that is, a curse.
So, for instance, if my father mentioned that a friend needed surgery, my mother would exclaim, “Kana Hara,” and then spit over her shoulder. (Some Jews throw salt over their shoulder instead.) Whenever we drove past a cemetery, my mother would utter, “Kana Hara,” and then spit. She was attempting to mitigate the bad omen of driving past a gravesite.
Now in some ways this would simply be fascinating to me, grist for the psychotherapeutic mill. The problem, however, that in the past year, I am cultivating a spirit of faith. And everything I learned from my family runs counter clockwise to a life of faith.
For instance: Trust the Lord Your God with all Your Heart and all Your Soul. The ritual of the Evil Eye proscribes doing such a thing. In fact, as the superstition goes, if I dare to express such a desire and wish, the Evil Eye may punish me.
Or if I articulate my gratitude for all of God’s blessings, well that pesky Evil Eye may pay me a visit: “You think you’re so happy. Well, I’ll show you who’s in charge!”
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. That kind of devotion could invite all sorts of trouble. Expressing gratitude each day for the blessings of my life? Uh, oh; the Evil Eye may teach me a lesson.
On the one hand, I understand how absurd is this way of thinking. It assumes that human beings have more control than we do. Interestingly, though, the power doesn’t come from thinking good thoughts or from our relationship with God. Our supposed power arises from repelling evil forces by assuming the worst.
However, the good news is that I’ve already started on the road of faith. I’ve done all kinds of things I’m not supposed to: praying to God, and asking Him for help; praising the Lord with all my heart. And somehow, someway, I’m still alive to tell the tale.
What I realize is this: my family turned to superstitions like the Evil Eye and Kana Hara because they lost their faith in God. Sadly, so many Jews abandoned their religion amidst the atrocities in Europe. Having no Higher Power to protect them, they turned to rituals that offered an illusion of safety.
But I don’t have to live my life this way; in fact, I’ve already left much of this mindset behind.
I can make a radically different choice: to embrace God; and to remember that He is the supreme Force over evil, not humans beings, no matter what words we say or how we say them.