Embracing My Tfoo-Tfooing Heritage

February 4, 2013

It should come as no surprise that someone as compelled by kaparot as I am would also spend a great deal of time dodging the evil eye. But I’ve often wondered about this avoidance aspect of Judaism that requires SWAT-like tactics to maneuver around the sheydim lurking in every corner.

This tfoo-tfooing habit of mine, ingrained in me by my mother and grandmother, has not been plucked out of thin air. It is rooted in Jewish ritual and Talmudic tradition and arrived from Europe with my great-grandparents. I presume that Old World habits initially cushioned their adjustment to America’s newness, but they died hard, sticking with my predecessors — and by extension, our family — for generations.

My first experience with the evil eye occurred beyond my range of memory, when I was a mere infant swaddled in my crib. With my mother out of sight, my paternal grandmother stuck a knife beneath my pillow to ward off the approach of the other-worldly villains waiting to snatch me. You can imagine what the knife’s discovery did for mother-in-law/daughter-in-law relations. Today, though, the pillow would be considered just as deadly, but that’s neither here nor there.

The tfoo-tfooing came later, when I was old enough to realize that relatives were not exactly spitting at me, but instead aiming to create a force field that would shield me from all shades of invisible doom. The expectoration followed something that sounded like keninahurrah to my young ears, a pronouncement preceded by shaynaponim and an often violent pinch of my cheeks. 

While trying on a new dress that needed altering, I was required to chew on a piece of thread, a trick meant to send the Angel of Death walking. This always flummoxed me. I simply could not fathom how my mother would allow me to place in my mouth something that had been at the bottom of her sewing box, yet she forced me to throw out a cookie that had been on the spotless kitchen floor for mere seconds. 

But there was more, all designed to keep us one step ahead of the bad guys – the ones ready to snatch our souls, our money, our belongings, our good luck, our future. There were every day proscriptions, too, like not walking around the house in socks, especially white ones, taking care not to trim our toenails in order, and never, ever, ever sitting on a table. 

And G-d bless the pregnant, for there was an entire orchestra of tfoo-tfooing composed for that nine-month period alone. But my favorite, the one to which I adhered to the letter of the law when my turn came, was the prohibition against entering a zoo, for if my sons had been born hairy and funny-looking, I would have had no one to blame but myself.

I know from discussions with friends that I am not altogether unique in this way, that many of us, in fact, have a shared history in this business. I find it remarkably comforting to know that I have compatriots in the fight to scare off the ayin harah, the sheydim, and the dark angels. In the spirit of camaraderie, I have even incorporated friends’ techniques into my own already extensive repertoire. So I no longer leave water uncovered overnight and always take care to line up pairs of shoes in the correct position.

Genetically predisposed in this way, I worry about even the slightest of missteps. And I wonder, too, whether this approach is, at its core, a healthy way to live in an otherwise fragile world or if, perhaps, it is nothing more than shtetl-minded superstition best dropped in the spirit of modernity.

In the end, the arrival of the daily paper convinces me to keep at it. It offers reports of endless tragedy and suffering, natural disaster, man-made disaster, economic decline, and celebrity dysfunction, with only an occasional feel-good story about an adorable rescue dog in Montana. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind a force field that keeps the scary world out, even if I appear to be a bit of a superstitious ninny. 

Long-term, though, these traditions, whatever their authentic origins, seem to have found their end with my children. The boys walk around in white socks all the time and toss their shoes haphazardly about. When asked, they will tell you the reasons I’ve asked them not to: Socks get dirty. Shoes get lost. There will be no mention of the evil eye or ghosts or the satan. That part slipped unnoticed through their memories, the genetic trait through a generation.

I presume they will eventually find their own way to ward off the unwanted and to protect what is dear to them. Or maybe, just maybe, when they have children of their own, they will need the comfort that a little knocking on the kitchen table and some hearty tfoo-tfooing can provide. I may yet, one day, hear them mumble an incantation they recall from their childhood, and perhaps thoughts of their superstitious mother – their fellow soldier in arms — will bring a smile to their faces.