No Halloween Ghoul Can Compare to the Fear That This Jewish Ritual Inspires
Halloween superstitions (cue black felines stretching taut bodies on still roads) reign in the dusks of October. But the ghost of my former Orthodox self is hardly affected by these scares. Jack-o-Lanterns and Dracula costumes remind me only of America’s perpetual urge to capitalize on basic human instincts (in this case, of course, fear). They are child’s play compared to the one superstition that haunted me most: the Evil Eye.
Yes. The Evil Eye, or as it is known in Hebrew, the ayin hara.
Ayin hara is the gaze born of envy. This gaze can do more than merely make its victim feel uncomfortable. It can be the origin of the victim’s sudden bout of sickness, misery, and even death. The Torah mentions ayin hara and states that the only group protected from its possible calamity are the descendents of the biblical hero, Joseph.
Over afternoon Shabbos teas and communal challah bakes, women have been peppering their conversations with “bli ayin hara” (“without an ayin hara”) for generations: “Mrs. Schwartz has seven children, bli ayin hara” or, in Yiddish, “My father is 80 years old, kayn ayn hora.” These three words continue to be a verbal amulet against anyone who may be jealous of another’s progeny or long life.
My family emigrated from Baku, Azerbaijan to the States in 1989. While Azerbaijan’s main religion is Islam, it’s also important to note to that many Romani groups live in the country. Not surprisingly, Islamic and Romani rituals against the Evil Eye have all combined to heighten my culture’s terror of the ayin hara. Since I was a child, I could barely keep count of how many times my swarm of relatives let the words “ayin hara” tumble out of their lips with a dread that rivaled words like “cancer.”
My mother coaxes:
“Be careful, Rebecca. That dress shows off your figure. Don’t wear it, you may get an ayin hara.”
“Don’t participate too much in class, Rebecca. Your friends may be jealous of your smarts and give you an ayin hara.”
Or she laments in hushed tones:
“My handsome and successful son is not married yet because he got an ayin hara when he was younger.”
“Your father’s brother passed away when he was a child because someone gave him an ayin hara.”
And then, the panic:
“We may get sick because of ayin hara! We may lose our money because of ayin hara! We may die because of ayin hara!”
Madonna made the red string (believed to ward off the Evil Eye) Kabbalah-chic, leading self-proclaimed bohemians and yoga instructors to tout them on wrists and ankles. But, according to Azerbaijan’s Jewish lore, salt sprinkled over one’s head and then burned is the true antidote against ayin haras. If I ever broke out in a raging fever, received an unexpected slew of bad grades, or waddled in a stage of adolescent loneliness, my mother would usher me to her side with salt in her palm.
“Those who gave you the Evil Eye should be destroyed like this salt will be destroyed,” she proclaimed.
There was palpable fierceness to her words, to her motions, and to her eyes.
“Mom’s like a witch,” my brother looked on and laughed.
I was not laughing. Instead, I watched the salt burn beneath the eager blaze.
As a thirteen year old, making sense of cruel social cliques, my sudden rebellious body, and increasingly difficult math problems to solve, I felt close to powerless. I needed something raw and forceful to blame for the misfortunes that teenagehood inflicts. And so, immersed in a culture that enclosed me in its walls of superstition, I quickly became obsessed with the Evil Eye.
First, there was the paranoia. Paranoia that my friends, teachers, and even my own family, were blasting ayin haras my way. As I turned my back, I imagined their eyes, like caricatures of every demon-possessed child in horror movies, shot Arctic rays of envy through my spine: I will fail my next test because of them. I will have no friends because of them. I will grow to be ugly because of them.
Second, were the chants. With a mouth moving fast in worry, I murmured the following under my breath every time I felt like I was the recipient of the Evil Eye (which was, on average, five times a day): “May the Evil Eye that (blank) is giving me be completely destroyed.” I chanted this personalized prayer ten times in a row. It must be said ten times, otherwise I would amount to tepid nothingness. Five Evil Eyes + ten chants per Evil Eye equals to 50 chants per day.
Third, was the insomnia. Insomnia was the Rosemary’s baby that my paranoia and excessive chanting conceived. It taunted me every night in middle school. My hands were unsteady as I lifted a glass of caffeinated tea in the morning, and I arrived to class with knotty hair and cartoonishly large eye bags.
Fear of the Evil Eye, and its consequences, chased me from middle school to high school. This fear was only murdered when l was finally driven away from the rituals of a cloistered lifestyle in college. By then, I had become not only emotionally exhausted from years of superstitious beliefs, but also from religion itself. Both superstition and my ultra-Orthodox upbringing have been charged, mercilessly, with fear and paranoia. The synapses that were responsible for firing thoughts like “If I wear my new dress, I’ll get an Evil Eye” also fired thoughts like “If I don’t dress modestly, God will punish me.” Rumination bred obsession which bred anxiety which bred meaninglessness. And meaningless is the antithesis of what religion is proud to brag to its disciples.
On this Halloween, as its nostalgic reruns of Hocus Pocus and a new season of Stranger Things entertain millions, I know that I will dwell on my past hauntings.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.