At a party recently a family friend wiped a urine-soaked diaper across my infant’s face. And I didn’t stop her.
To be honest, I was happy. It meant that baby Theo was going to avoid the evil eye.
Washing his face in urine—symbolically—was something my Soviet Jewish family often did for newborns, as part of an old superstitious belief. I always thought it sounded gross when I was younger, but after having my own children, I was willing to do almost anything to keep luck on my side. I was afraid that if I didn’t wipe his face, the people at the party could somehow have ill will toward the new tiny creature in my life. Or that someone who may have wanted a son would be jealous of mine and inadvertently cause him harm through their evil eye.
Part of me understands that it’s absurd. (Note to my non-superstitious husband: Sorry, babe. This did actually happen and no, you were not there to stop it.) But since I’ve become a mother, my need to protect my two young children has kicked into overdrive. Suddenly, I want to do everything the way I’d been raised, including following the same superstitions that I’d snickered at in the past. Being a part of generations-old superstitions has allowed me to feel that I have power over the situation—to gain some control over my children’s fate—and to follow in the footsteps of my own Jewish upbringing.
I was born in what’s now Ukraine and raised with both Jewish and Russian superstitions about jinxing my good fortune. Like most Soviet Jews, I grew up with lots of spitting, red-string wearing, and general anxiety about attracting the evil eye.
When I was a child, my grandmother would wash my face with part of her dress or skirt after we’d come back from a party—again, to ward off the evil eye. I don’t remember having my own face washed with urine, but I do recall that after my grandmother washed my face, I’d let the water dry on my face without wiping it off.
At other times, my great aunt would deter the evil eye by telling me how ugly I looked, before turning away from me to spit three times. For my older relatives, it felt un-Jewish to give children a compliment—it would, they believed, curse their good fortune. But as a 5-year-old, I was both offended and confused.
When I moved to the United States as a child, I met a group of other Soviet immigrants who were raised with the same superstitions. Even if they didn’t believe in them any more than I did, no one thought of these behaviors as wacky. Growing up around friends who grew up with the same superstitions meant I had few instances to question them. And since superstitions are often private, there was rarely a time when anyone other than my best friends found out about these habits. As I became more Americanized, I didn’t let go of old superstitions. Quite the opposite: I added new ones to my repertoire, often making a secret wish when I’d see 11:11 appear on a digital clock.
As an adult, being superstitious feels both familiar and calming. These routine traditions help reassure me that things will turn out all right.
Since I had children, I’ve accumulated much more faith in these little habits. I now have an ever-expanding fear of somehow being jinxed. While I’m totally transparent with those I consider my closest friends, I panic about revealing anything good about myself to others, lest it tempt fate. For example, telling fellow moms that my infant started to sleep through the night recently (which he does for now) seems almost anti-Jewish to me. And sometimes I simply downplay the good in my life. For example, I complain about work just like everyone else—even though as a freelance writer with great clients, a flexible schedule and the ability to drink perfectly frothy cappuccinos all day, there’s often little to complain about. I also go to great lengths to downplay good things that have come my way. For me, keeping exciting news or good fortune a secret is comforting. That way, if something doesn’t materialize, I have no one to blame.
As a mother, I’ve begun to feel my own Jewish superstitions getting kookier. I’ve ordered red strings in bulk from Etsy and have starting taking what one says during a sneeze as truth. What was supposed to be a light acknowledgement of my culture has now weighed me down with extra anxiety. For the sake of my kids, it’s time to rein it in.
Of course, I don’t want my son to fall victim to the evil eye, but I’m mostly worried about passing on a heightened level of neuroticism onto my own two children and tangling them with too many hamsas on red strings. I don’t want my children to feel that someone else has the power to bring them bad luck, or that they should act secretive toward the people around them to try to prevent feelings of jealousy. When the time comes, I want my children to share their good fortune without being paranoid about the evil eye. I want them to feel free from superstition enough to brag. They are lucky enough that they have other ways to feel Jewish.
I’m finally becoming convinced that few people actually care where I’m planning to go on vacation or that my child sleeps a little better than theirs. And I’ve realized that I don’t believe that those around me actually wish me ill and could somehow influence the outcome of events.
So, I’ll no longer be changing my behavior to avoid the evil eye—even if being neurotic can feel like another Jewish trait. In the last few months, I’ve started telling people about good news, and even showing off my family on social media. I posted a vacation shot of my children on Instagram and a photo of me with my best friend—the first time I’d willingly posted a photo of myself online. I’ll never feel comfortable plastering my children’s faces all over social media, though I’ll try to make sure my friends know that they at least exist. And maybe this year, I’ll write a sappy happy anniversary message to my husband on Facebook, so no one that reads it feels unsure about whether we’re in a happy marriage.
But superstitions are not something I’m willing to cut out entirely. To this day, following them makes me feel genuinely Jewish. As I get older, I realize that it was these Jewish superstitions that kept our history alive when my family was forced not to profess our faith in other ways in the Soviet Union. For me, these superstitious habits will always be my oldest Jewish traditions. In other words, the private superstitions that I still practice have been around longer than our family Passover celebration.
So, I’m not going to promise that I’ll never wash my son or daughter’s face after an event with a part of my clothing. I won’t greet visitors over doorways (to avoid disagreements) and I refuse to step over my children if they are on the floor (lest I stunt their growth). And I’ll keep some of the Russian superstitions, too: I’ll continue to ask my entire family to sit for a brief moment before departing on a long trip, to make sure we have a safe journey. These are the things that remind me of home. And practicing them is a part of who I am—even if my husband rolls his eyes.