What do Madonna, Barbra Streisand, Britney Spears and Demi Moore have in common? Don’t tell me — yawn! — that all four are practicing kabbalists. That’s old news.
No, all four have been spotted wearing bendels. The gossip columnists tell us that the latest to be seen with one is Moore, who has been appearing in public with a red bendel on her left wrist.
You don’t know what a bendel is? There’s no need to be embarrassed, because I didn’t know either until recently. It’s not something designed by Henri Bendel, nor is it a word you’ll find in the dictionary — unless you go to a Yiddish one. And all you’ll learn there is that bendl is Yiddish for “ribbon,” which is not exactly what our Hollywood quartet has been sporting on their wrists. That is more likely to be something in the line of the bendels now sold on the Internet, a typical ad that reads:
“All-Handmade Sterling Silver Bracelet with an authentic red string from Israel sewn through the chain. The Red Bendel Bracelet brings Good Luck to those who wear it, wards off evil wishers and protects us from harm. Each bracelet comes packed inside its own gift pouch with a card detailing the tradition. Size: 7”. Also available in children’s sizes.”
How does a plain ribbon become a silver bracelet, retailing for $35 and up, with a red string sewn through it? Although the current kabbalah craze is undoubtedly behind this transformation, the use of royte bendlakh, or red ribbons, as amulets, while an authentic part of Jewish folk religion in Eastern Europe, never was a specifically kabbalistic practice, nor were such ribbons worn on the wrist. Most commonly, they were tied to the bars or posts of a baby’s crib to protect the infant against illness or misfortune brought about by the “Evil Eye” — or, in a more mythicized version, by Lilith, the legendary first wife of Adam, an evil succubus who kidnapped little infants by killing them. As bright red was believed to be a color the evil powers disliked, a royte bendl worked as a charm to ward them off.
Red ribbons or strings occasionally were used to protect older children, too. Mothers sometimes sewed them onto their children’s underclothes, and in times of danger they were worn visibly at the collar. Despite the custom’s superstitious nature, there were rabbis who actively approved of it. During the great Russian cholera epidemic of 1887, some even ordered Jewish parents to knot roytebendlakh around their children’s necks.
The use of red strings or ribbons against the Evil Eye was not exclusively an Ashkenazi custom; Sephardic Jews engaged in it, too. So did non-Jews in many parts of the world — and ultimately, it probably was from them that Jews picked up the practice. Russian peasants, for example, traditionally knotted skeins of red wool or thread around the arms and legs of children, and around their necks in times of epidemic. The Scots believed that red kept away witches. In ancient Britain, stones called “Odin stones” or “holey stones” (not because they were sacred, but because they had holes in them) were strung with red ribbons and hung on bedposts to protect sleepers, or worn around the neck to heal illness. A German superstition held that a red ribbon knotted to a girl’s head kept the evil spirits away from her. The priests and priestesses of ancient Rome wore red ribbons, called infulae , around their heads and also tied them to sacrificial animals and to human suppliants.
Thus the bendel has a long prehistory — and if we don’t insist on ribbons or the color red, and limit ourselves to the protective power of knots and strings, the biblical tsitsiyot or knotted fringes worn on the corners of the prayer shawl might be considered predecessors of the bendel, too. Knots, indeed, always have been associated in magical practice with the binding of one’s enemies. (If any of you ever has wondered why the Hebrew word kesher , in modern usage no less than in the Bible, means both “knot” and “conspiracy,” the reason is that to conspire against someone was once to “tie him into knots” by secretly doing this to some item of his clothing or bedding in order to render him powerless.)
Kabbalah chic is now at its height and will follow the pattern of most vogues: crest, peak and fade away, So, in a few years’ time, Madonna, Barbra, Britney and Demi will have found some new mishegoss . Bendels, however, may survive as a type of trinket even after their mystique is gone, just as the fleur-de-lis has outlived the French monarchy and Christian crosses and Muslim crescents now dangle from charm bracelets. If you buy a new dictionary in a couple of years, look up “bendel.” It just might be there.