My oldest daughter, Allie, recently got engaged.
It’s good news. Actually, it’s great news. Her fiancé is a wonderful guy, they are a fabulous couple, and we are excited to welcome him into our family.
My best friend Andrea asked me what a mutual friend of ours said when I told her the big news. “Not much,” I replied, “because I haven’t told her yet.”
“This is great news!” she said, “Why didn’t you tell her yet?”
I get uncomfortable sharing good news. Inside, I am thrilled, I am ecstatic, I want to shout it from my roof using a megaphone. But I have told only a few close friends and relatives about the engagement. I’m kvelling, but silently.
I told Andrea that with so much terrible stuff going on right now, it feels off-putting to brag that something good has happened to me. Andrea wasn’t buying it. First of all, she said, “it’s not bragging” to share good news with people who are “craving something to be joyful about.” Besides, she added, “This is not because of the pandemic. It is how you always are. You have trouble embracing when good things happen to you or allowing others to be excited for you. It’s you and your kinehora!”
She was right. I’m afraid of a kinehora—the evil spirt that lurks, waiting to steal my happiness.
The Yiddish word kinehora is a phrase made up of the words “kein ayin hara,” which translates to “no evil eye.” As explained by Elizabeth Alpern in an article for Jewniverse: “The origin of the phrase is the superstition that talking about one’s good fortune attracts the attention of the evil eye, which loves to mess things up.”
When I was a child, we visited my grandmother weekly. She punctuated almost every sentence by saying kinehora, which for her was a five-syllable word. “The baby is getting so big, ke-NAIN-uh HUH-ruh,” she would say. Or she’d look at me and say, “How beautiful do you look in that blue dress, ke-NAIN-uh HUH-ruh.”
For extra safety, my grandmother would add, “poo, poo, poo” (illustrating the sound of spitting but without the actual saliva leaving her mouth). The reasoning was the same as locking the door and then shaking the knob a few times before you leave the house. Saying kinehora was to lock out the evil spirits and the poo, poo, poos were her checking to make sure they couldn’t get in.
After my grandmother died when I was 9, the word kinehora took on a different context for me. My grandmother had used it lightly, with the same urgency as you would say gesundheit after someone sneezes or amen after a prayer. She wanted to make sure that the evil spirits stayed away from us, but she didn’t seem to fear them.
But my other relatives, especially my grandfather, used kinehora as a dire warning. When he said it, the tone was ominous. My grandfather’s take was that evil was lurking around every corner, itching to steal your good fortune. The only way to hold on to something good was to hide it, keep it to yourself, and avoid taunting the evil eye.
Even though I knew how my grandfather felt about sharing good news, I was still surprised by his reaction when I told him I was pregnant. I had been married for several years and was thrilled. After waiting the standard three months, I was figuratively and literally bursting at the seams (of my pants) to tell people I was expecting.
For some reason I thought he would be ecstatic, too. After all, this was his first great-grandchild. But when I told him, he didn’t smile or start crying. He simply said, “Don’t tell anyone.” I laughed and pointed at my already rounded belly. I explained that it wasn’t an option to keep this news a secret much longer. He shook his head adamantly and sternly said, “Don’t say anything. You’ll give yourself a kinehora.”
His response upset me. Part of the fun of being pregnant was supposed to be telling people, “I’m pregnant!” and them being excited, too. I was annoyed. I thought: Other people embraced happiness and the opportunity to share it. Enough already with the kinehoras! There was no such thing as an evil eye. This was good news, my good news. I wanted to share it. So I did.
Two weeks after that conversation with my grandfather, I developed a fever. At first, my obstetrician wasn’t concerned. But a few days later, he sent me, still feverish, to an infectious disease specialist. Testing determined I had a virus known as CMV, benign for most of the general population but dangerous for pregnant women. I had to have an emergency amniocentesis. Luckily the virus hadn’t crossed into the placenta. The baby was fine. The rest of my pregnancy proceeded normally, ending with the birth of a healthy baby girl.
Physically I recovered completely but emotionally, I remained haunted. Even though every doctor said the virus was a fluke and assured me I had done nothing wrong, I felt responsible. I had leaned into my happiness, boasted about my good fortune. I had dared the evil eye to get me—and it did. Lesson learned.
From that point on, I didn’t just believe in the power of kinehora, I feared it and I gave it the power to govern my actions and reactions.
If good things happened to my family or me, I intrinsically wanted to keep them hush-hush. If we were lucky enough to partake in life’s buffet of good fortune, I’d insist we enjoy these morsels tucked in a cupboard, hidden from anyone’s view, especially those with evil eyes.
When Facebook launched in 2004, friends urged me to join, but I resisted. A public space to share every good thing, from intimate birthday celebrations to children’s achievements or exotic vacations? The thought sounded downright frightening, like waving a large red cape in front of an angry bull. My friends insisted that posting on Facebook was fun and a great way to stay connected. But to me, it seemed like a well-crafted trap set by the ingenious evil spirits to solicit information and then: whammo! Way too scary an endeavor just to see pictures of Jane-from-high-school’s new puppy.
Eventually, when I had to enter the world of social media for work, I did so tenuously. I rarely posted personal stories or photos. But even just using it to promote an article I had written, it felt like I was tempting fate. The likes and shares, though well-intentioned, made me anxious.
Being stingy about the good news I shared gave me a false sense of protection. Part of me believed that by keeping good news to myself, I was keeping my family safe from harm. But sometimes bad things happened anyway. No one is truly able to totally ward off evil spirts, I learned, even if you bolt the door shut and check it several times.
In addition, living in fear of kinehoras was stealing something from me.
On the website Psychology in Action, writer Mona Moieni explains that sharing good news can positively impact relationships. Known as capitalization, the sharing of both important and trivial happy events creates closeness between people. Beyond enjoying the happy event itself, Moieni explains, “Sharing positive news with others is associated with benefits such as feeling more positive and more satisfied with life, greater self-esteem, and decreases in feeling lonely.”
After my conversation with Andrea, I decided to tell a few more people about my daughter’s engagement. Phone calls were met with joyful responses of “Mazel Tov!” and “Congratulations!” followed by questions about the proposal and wedding plans. Texts announcing the engagement were answered with replies of “So Exciting!” with heart, ring, and champagne glasses emojis.
Everyone said hearing about my happiness made them feel happy, too. These people are not evil spirts, I finally understood; they are kind, loving spirits that welcome me sharing good news with them. And this is good news!
And yet, I still can’t completely shake that gnawing feeling. It’s like a friend of mine who was told as a child that cola was made of crushed ants so that it wouldn’t appeal to her. Now an adult, she knows logically this is not true but she still can’t drink it. I want to believe the evil spirits are made up and have no place in my life. But still, sharing good news feels scary to me, like I am tempting fate and risking losing it all.
I am trying to push past the negativity to find a middle ground between secrecy and bragging where I feel safe to share. That place seems to lie in my memories of grandmother. She said the good stuff, smiling with pride when she did. And then she protected it with some magic words, like verbal bubble wrap, just to keep those evil spirts away.
My daughter is getting married, ke-NAIN-uh HUH-ruh. (And just to be safe, poo poo poo.)
Randi Mazzella is a freelance writer and journalist specializing in parenting, mental health, wellness, and pop-culture.