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Bubbe meises
By PVP Village Writers
Posted: 2023-11-16T21:45:00Z

Bubbe meises, part 1

By: Ellen Orenstein


“Why,” a friend asked me, did you say “‘pu,pu,pu’ when I told you my good news?” I had to stop and think for a moment as it is a response to hearing good news which is second nature for me. I’ve heard it almost all of my life – it’s what my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins always said upon hearing good news from anyone – it’s to make sure the evil eye doesn’t come along to spoil things. It’s right up there with a red string, a blue bead or a “k’ain a’hara.”

And because I can be easily distracted, especially when faced with a list of tasks that I really don’t want to, I asked Google what she thought about weird Jewish traditions that really have no basis in fact. And Google certainly did have a great deal to say about traditions, bubbe meises, old wives tales and superstitions, many of which are ingrained in my DNA, even if I know they have no basis in reality – and that’s why they are so interesting.

At, or near, the top of the list is the red thread tied on the left wrist to ward off evil spirits. And you don’t have to be Jewish to wear one either. Madonna, Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey all wear them. I was given one by a waiter in a Greek seafood restaurant in Cancun, which also had a blue bead ‘eye’ in the middle, also known to ward off evil spirits, which I wore until it fell apart. I don’t believe that it works, but just in case, I didn’t take it off. If you want a little extra assurance that you will be immune to evil spirits, and perhaps even increase fertility and protect a soldier, you can purchase an OFFICIAL Kabbalah Red String Evil Eye Protection Bracelet from Amazon, for $27.95!

Another thread involving superstition that I was not aware of is that a piece of string held in your mouth while you are mending a tear or sewing on a button, that piece of string will protect you from misfortune.

Sneezing is another topic that has a lot of suggestions for warding off the Evil Eye. According to Midrashic legend, a sneeze used to announce impending death; that at the close of his life, one sneezed and instantly died. Possibly this is why we say God bless you, or something similar to one who has just sneezed. Another traditional belief is that when a person sneezes during a conversation, he is “sneezing on the truth” and whatever has just been said will occur, or that an event that has already occurred really happened just as the teller had said. Especially common among the Jews from Lithuania and Galicia, one should tug on one’s ear when sneezing. There is a lot of controversy as whether one should tug on one ear or both, and whether one should tug up or down. Originally, one only tugged if the speaker was talking about someone who was dead, but eventually it became common to all sneezes. And of course, anyone in the vicinity of the sneezer should say ‘tzu langehmazaldikker yohrn,’ (to long, lucky years).

Another Jewish superstition states that one shouldn’t boast about one’s circumstances regarding health and wealth. This possibly is rooted in the Talmud which states that a man is judged every day and bragging demonstrates a lack of gratitude. On Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement, that could backfire and the next year not be as positive. This is closely tied to the superstition in which you say the opposite of what you mean to confuse the evil eye. Actors will tell each other to “break a leg” to assure a perfect performance. A critically ill person might change his name to fool the Angel of Death; you might tell a mother her child is really ugly to protect the child from harm. This last one only works if the mother is familiar with the superstition.

There are many superstitions concerning death rituals and traditions. Covering the mirrors in the home of a person who has died - everyone who has ever lost a loved one has a different explanation. The most recent one I heard is that the mirror image of the person who has died is trapped in the mirror and you must cover it over or the spirit will cause damage or harm you. Another common custom after coming home from a funeral is to wash your hands before you enter the house or you’ll bring death into the house. In some Orthodox communities in Israel, they do not take a direct path to the cemetery for the burial. Rather, they travel in a path that goes all over in order to lose the demons on the way there. The object is to avoid alerting demonic offspring who will try to steal your inheritance.

The list of Bubbe meises (old wives tales) is endless and probably could fill volumes. True or not, it’s an interesting trip down a rabbit hole that can take an entire afternoon or more and give you a reason not to fold the laundry.


PS: “One should not believe in superstitions, but it is best to be heedful of them. Anon.

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