If you have ever believed that a restaurant charged a woman two thousand dollars for a cookie recipe or that alligators live in the New York City sewers, you have been taken in by an urban legend. Unverifiable, verbally-transmitted indicators of the fears and wishes of their tellers, urban legends are the modern equivalent of folktales.
Jewish urban legends are much the same, but these are tales told by Jews, about Jews and for Jews. Often propagated around the study table (the campfire’s yeshiva equivalent), they play off of the anxieties of Orthodox life. There are dozens of them, each with its own subtle — and sometimes not so subtle — variations. They deal with issues ranging from the phenomenon of the baal teshuvah, a returnee to Jewish observance or “born again” Jew, to the yeshiva student. Dybbuks, demons, thugs and missionaries are all fair game. Together they offer a funhouse-mirror version of Jewish life, a twisted dreamscape whose relationship to reality is often difficult to ascertain.
Urban legends can be awfully gruesome. (The story of the cat in the cholent springs to mind.) Others can be quite explicit sexually. What follows is a small assortment (one fit for a family newspaper) of the thousands of legends in circulation.
The Confused Baalat Teshuvah
A recent baalat teshuvah (female “born again” Jew) once was invited to an Orthodox family’s home for Sabbath dinner. When the time came for the ritual washing of hands before the meal, she asked the women present for a ring. Perplexed, the women asked why. The neophyte explained, “I don’t have one with me, and I can’t do the washing unless I have one in my mouth.” In the little experience the girl had had with ritual hand washing, she had seen women remove their rings and hold them in their mouths. (One’s hands are supposed to be bare when washed.) The girl had mistaken a gesture incidental to the ritual for the ritual itself. The women she’d seen putting rings in their mouths were simply trying to keep them from getting lost.
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Judaism for the “new” Jew can be a virtual minefield of faux pas. Though it is unlikely that anyone ever asked for a ring to bite down on before a Sabbath meal, the story is comparable to the hundreds of possible missteps someone can make while trying to navigate the labyrinthine byways of Orthodox custom. The hand-washing story perhaps was conceived by some benevolent host looking to allay anxieties — or perhaps was the work of a cruel host looking to fuel them. Then again, in the hands (or in the mouths, as it were) of the new Jew herself, the telling of such a story can serve as a form of empowerment.
The story of The Confused Baalat Teshuvah follows the same script in its retellings, but other stories offer more variations. The Unlikely Warrior is one such legend. The premise is simple: A Jewish boy is assaulted on the city streets. Sometimes the boy is a college student at Yeshiva University, and other times he is a yeshiva student in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Sometimes he knows kung fu, sometimes he is a sharpshooter with a pistol, and sometimes he actually turns the tables and mugs the muggers, coming back to school with a couple hundred dollars more than he left with. In at least one version of the story, the solution comes deus ex machina from an even unlikelier source than the boy.
The Unlikely Warrior
A young yeshiva student was walking through a tough neighborhood at 3 a.m. He had been wandering down the wrong streets for hours and now was hopelessly lost. Upon hearing the sound of a swinging chain, his heart started to pound. Out from the shadows came three thugs. The first carried a chain, the second wore brass knuckles and the third brandished a handgun. The boy took a step back, but they surrounded him too quickly and demanded that he turn over his wallet. But they didn’t know who they were dealing with. The boy swung into action and before anyone could respond, all three thugs found themselves lying in a bruised pile. The boy was a kung fu master. They thugs didn’t stand a chance.
Another student was walking around a dangerous neighborhood late at night. This one didn’t know kung fu. So when the thugs tried to mug him, he had no way to defend himself. When all hope seemed lost, including the $100 bill the boy was planning to give to charity, a young man stepped out of the shadows. He was a friend of the thugs and he put his hand up to indicate that they should leave the student alone. “It’s not right to go after him,” the man explained. “He’s a Jew, and he’s one of our brothers.” The others deferred to the apparent leader and let the student go.
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It isn’t difficult to understand why stories like these would be popular among yeshiva students, many of whom are new to big cities. Both stories are frequently told by high schoolers getting ready to live away from home for the first time. Turning the tables on a potential foe is a common motif in Jewish urban legends, and not only when the adversary is a thug. The assailant can come in religious garb, too.
The Greyhound bus was crowded and every seat was taken but one. The yeshiva student boarded the bus and made his way toward that one seat. The man sitting next to him was holding a Bible open in his lap, but the student didn’t care one way or another. He was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to get home. The seatmate, however, had other plans. Seeing the yarmulke on the student’s head, he immediately launched into a discussion. Tired as he was, the student quickly surmised that the “discussion” in question was really an attempt to persuade the student to let Jesus into his heart. But by ride’s end, it was the man who had been won over (he’s converting to Judaism) and the boy had finally gotten some sleep.
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Such a story could speak to the matter of the student’s youth and relative lack of experience with Jewish theology. Safe and sound in the yeshiva, he is vulnerable once away from it.
The most compelling urban legends are generally the darkest ones. They confront sexuality, murder, demonology and disease. Anything that a person may fear can find an outlet in an urban legend.
The following deals with both demons and mental illness, but the twist at the end takes out at least some of the sting. An entire subset of legend has grown out of the notion that Kabbalah is something that only a mature mind can handle. According to tradition, it’s only after the age of 40 that one should begin grappling with it. A rabbi told his student the following, when the student asked what harm the study of Kabbalah could pose for those not yet ready.
Flour Around The Bed
Studying an old kabbalistic text, a yeshiva student read that if he pours flour around his bed at night, he will see the chicken-shaped footprints of demons in the morning. Though his rabbi warned him not to mess with Kabbalah, and his roommates mocked him for his superstitions, the boy was obstinate and went ahead with his plan. That night, he shook the bag of flour around his bed, using the white powder to form a wide circle upon the hard wood floor, and went to sleep. The next morning he woke up to find the very footprints around his bed that the text had predicted. He didn’t have much time to reflect, though, as the sight instantly caused him to go insane. His parents were forced to pick him up and, eventually, had him institutionalized. And the roommates? They were horrified to discover that making fake footprints in the flour while the boy lay sleeping had generated such unforeseen results. Of course, the rabbi who told my cousin’s spouse’s brother’s barber the story claims that the demons were real.
Mordechai Shinefield has written for The Commentator, Mimaamakim, the Algemeiner Journal and other publications. If you know of any interesting Jewish urban legends, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.