Stevie Wonder advises that “superstition ain’t the way,” but few heed his words.
On a recent Saturday morning I found myself loitering in the musty bowels of the Bialystoker Synagogue on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Several long tables were set with bottles of mediocre scotch and plates of substandard herring and potato kugel, awaiting the kiddush onslaught.
I encounter Yoilish — a snazzily-suited acquaintance and one-time Hasid who shed payis and bekishe long ago. His shock of gelled wavy hair is as thick as his unreconstructed Williamsburg Yiddish accent. Normally upbeat, Yoilish seemed downcast that morning. I inquired as to his furrowed brow.
“Renovated my apartment,” he muttered hesitantly, “now I think it’s too flashy.”
“Some jealous visitors.” And then he whispered darkly in my ear, “I know they’ve given me the Evil Eye.”
The specter of the Evil Eye has haunted devout and secular alike, during Ages both dark and enlightened. Even thoroughly modern Yoilish isn’t immune.
“Are you sure?”
“Can you explain” he responded, agitated, “why after each of the three parties I threw, my daughter ended up getting hurt?”
“That’s not an explanation.” Case closed.
Taking leave of Yoilish, I scampered upstairs to the main sanctuary where services were in progress. I spotted another shul friend, an artist as lanky as he is hip, seated in a rear pew, engrossed in his Chumash. Sidling up beside him I quietly related my exchange in the basement.
Seems Yoilish wasn’t the only one preoccupied with this Evil Eye business.
“My wife’s the same way,” replied this buddy, exhibiting vague interest but little surprise. Apparently, his spouse would often blame minor family woes on the insidious eye of a certain overweight nemesis long departed.
Listening to him, I recalled the elderly woman on queue at Moishe’s Bakery, who confided to my wife that her son’s brilliance and good looks had attracted the Evil Eye, which inevitably led to a brain tumor and death. And then I remembered a familial tale about an unknown relative, a shtetl child, felled by tuberculosis a mere week after a doting ancient spinster had complimented his supposedly beautiful face.
The Talmud states that “ninety nine die from the Evil Eye as against one from natural causes.” Impressive statistics. Elsewhere it says there were rabbis who, with a subtle look, could turn an offending person into a pile of bones.
The best bulwark against the Evil Eye, according to the Talmud, is to avoid arousing jealousy. Yet other cases require special incantations. For instance, anyone entering a town should “take his right thumb in his left hand and left thumb in his right and say ‘I come from the seed of Joseph, against whom the Evil Eye has no power.” A man walking through a pair of women, dogs, palm trees or snakes should protect himself by invoking the names of certain demons.
Happily, the spell cannot penetrate water, which makes sea creatures immune to its dangers, and explains the popularity of gefilte fish at massive Hasidic gatherings.
Satmar Hasidim ward off the Evil Eye by wearing their yarmulkes inside out, especially on Simchat Torah. Similarly, some pre-war Hasidim are reputed to have worn their underpants inside out. Regrettably, no data is available to determine whether such practices have made their lives any luckier.
Amulets and talismans have been displayed from time immemorial: broken glasses under chupas evoke the smashing of demons, which can also be dispatched by mezuzahs, garlic cloves, five fingered hamsas and the now-ubiquitous red string bracelets. Syrian Jews defend their homes with a makeshift anti-Evil Eye kit consisting of an olive oil juglet and a bag containing sugar, salt and sesame seeds.
Gentiles deploy their own methods. Italians toss salt over their right shoulders, Indians protect their dwellings with lemons and chili peppers, and Russians engage the services of witches, warlocks and healers.
The 20th century introduced novel methods of inoculating the vulnerable. Sixty years ago, the New York City police arrested a pair of Queens businessmen who earned thousands of dollars marketing a special deflection machine meant to protect their “patients” from the dreaded “ Fatura ” — an Italian Evil Eye said to habitually cross the Atlantic.
In 1932, the New York Times sensationally reported that the Evil Eye was “found by scientific experiment to have a definite basis in fact.” Dr. Otto Rahn of Cornell University had discovered that the human eye “emanates radiation… similar to ultraviolet rays and strong enough to kill yeast cells if… sufficiently close.” The excitement was premature, and Rahn later complained that reporters had misunderstood him.
Recently, a close associate of mine has attempted to informally validate the controversial ocular phenomenon by zapping her own Evil Eye on successful, happy individuals she happens to dislike. Strangely, her targets appear utterly oblivious to these intensive efforts. In fact, they’re prospering more than ever.
While thoroughly skeptical of the existence of an Evil Eye, I conclude with this vignette: During kiddush, a friend complimented me on my new fancy shirt. Perhaps he should have kept his praise to himself — by the time the scotch and kugel had vanished, I discovered the shirt stained with what looked like herring. If only I’d inoculated myself with an incantation. Or maybe even a napkin.
Uzi Silber is a writer and artist living on the Lower East Side.