Looking Out for the Evil Eye

Long Thought Taboo, Jewish Baby Showers Receive Slow (If Wary) Embrace

By Aliza Phillips-Stoll

Published July 08, 2005, issue of July 08, 2005.
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Karen Schwartz was determined not to miss out on a baby shower. She’d passed on the bridal shower, thinking that a wedding shouldn’t be a celebration of materialism, but eventually came to regret her decision. However, one thing stood between her growing abdomen and a mound of bow-wrapped packages: that demonic spirit that seeks to ruin all joyous happenings, the evil eye — or rather the age-old Jewish fear of it.

And so, Schwartz hedged. “I did the equivalent of the people who keep kosher in the house but eat in [nonkosher] restaurants. I didn’t have any of the gifts brought to the house,” said Schwartz, the author of “Clearing the Aisle,” a novel about planning a Jewish wedding. “By having the gifts at my aunt’s house in New Jersey — and I’m in Brooklyn — the evil eye had to find me over two bodies of water. I figured I was safe.” And indeed she was. In November 2004, she gave birth to a healthy girl.

But Schwartz isn’t the only Jewishly conscious — but for the most part nonobservant — woman to call on age-old superstitions as a safeguard during pregnancy. In fact, while most American Jewish women long ago embraced the bridal shower and other wedding-related customs once foreign to Jews, the baby shower remains one of those occasions when Jewish women palpably feel themselves being tugged between the traditional and the mainstream.

According to Joshua Trachtenberg’s “Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion,” the practice of warding off the evil eye arose in the Middle Ages. The evil eye was a demonic manifestation believed to be jealous of others’ good luck, so in order to avoid him, Jews shied away from outward displays of good fortune.

Author Anita Diamant explains in “The New Jewish Baby Book: Names, Ceremonies & Customs, a Guide for Today’s Families” that fear of the evil eye — the ayn horeh, in Yiddish — led to a number of interesting methods for warding it off. Options included never praising a baby’s beauty without mentioning some real or imagined flaw, spitting three times or saying kayn ayn horeh, which means, literally, “no evil eye,” and is a verbal talisman used to keep demons at bay.

It was for this reason that American Jews traditionally eschewed the baby shower, Diamant explained to the Forward, noting that she had a baby shower 20 years ago and knows many Jewish women these days who have had one. “Eastern customs are very anxious about the evil eye, ayn horeh. A lot of things we consider very deeply Jewish are things we borrowed from the Poles or Lithuanians about golems, goblins and witches,” Diamant said.

And though society has come a long way since the Middle Ages, the feeling of vulnerability that comes with being pregnant remains, and thus the tendency to give weight to superstitions becomes a matter of “Well, just in case.”

“There’s this mysterious process going on inside. It’s something new and totally foreign that happens to be in your body — like an alien: While you can feel it happening, you can’t see it happening, and you are extremely vulnerable because you’re so invested in what’s happening,” said Robin Aronson, co-author of “The Whole Pregnancy Handbook: An Obstetrician’s Guide to Integrating Conventional and Alternative Medicine Before, During, and After Pregnancy.” “You’re dealing with something you’ve never dealt with before.”

So while some new mothers are embracing the idea of a shower, others feel it’s better just to stick with the old ways. In order to ward off the evil eye, Kira Shmuler, a native of Russia who now lives in New Jersey, tied a red ribbon around an ankle of both of her two children when they were born. “In my family, it was always, ‘God forbid, you can’t have a shower,’ so no shower for me,” said Shmuler, who works as a school psychologist. “I did have all the stuff, but people were like, ‘Did you set up the nursery?’ and I was like, ‘No.’”

Indeed, to some women not having a baby shower is not only a wise move but also a tradition in and of itself.

When a pregnant Sandy Taub of West Roxbury, Mass., told her mother she was having a baby shower, the grandmother-to-be’s reaction was, “Jews don’t have baby showers,” Taub recalled. “She was absolutely against it.”

There is, in fact, no law against having a baby shower. So for this age of cross-cultural pollination, Diamant includes in her book suggestions for making the baby shower a “milestone on the road to becoming a Jewish parent,” such as asking guests to bring specifically Jewish presents. For “people whose parents were born in this country, differences have faded with non-Jewish friends, especially around cultural niceties,” Diamant explained.

Schwartz, for one, has her eye on whole new trend among today’s parents-to-be, Jewish or not: last hurrah parties, coed affairs that celebrate the last days of freedom before parenthood begins. Invitees, Schwartz explained, are not encouraged to bring gifts. “But if you think about it [such parties are] a kayn ayn horeh, too,” Schwartz said. “So you might as well get the gear.”

Aliza Phillips-Stoll is a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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