On a recent morning as I was driving my 8-year-old to school, I noted that the usually congested West Side Highway was rather empty. "Look how good the traffic is today," I said excitedly. Without missing a beat, he comes back with, “Hey, don’t jinx it!”
I noticed this had become a trend and I wondered if I was partially to blame. How often had I said, "Knock on wood?" How long had I been wearing the red bracelet around my wrist?
A few days ago he was recovering from the stomach flu, but staying at his dad's house.
“Are you feeling better,” I asked him during our nightly call.
“Well, I don’t want to jinx it,” he answered.
“Well do you feel like you have to throw up THIS VERY MINUTE?” I followed up.
“No, not this minute. But I can’t speak for the future. So I don't want to jinx it."
Where did he get this fear of the jinx?
I must confess that I do believe in it a bit myself. But with me, it’s more of an energy transfer thing. My sister has always thought I was crazy.
“Do you really think anyone on this earth has the power to wish cancer upon you?” (Not that anyone ever said "cancer.") Personally I believe in only a moderately severe degree of jinx. But I do believe in an "evil eye"- the kind that comes from jealous or non-wishing people.
I’ve spent many years wearing a red bracelet. Although it's technically a token of Kaballah, I don't necessarily connect the two, but I like what it promises. They say that the Red String protects from the negative influences of the “Evil Eye.” The evil eye refers to the unfriendly stares and unkind glances we sometimes get from the people around us. Kabbalah says we can remove intrusive negative influences by using tools such as the Red String!
It sounds silly, right? Well it did to me too – but a few years ago I was having a pattern of bad luck, and I figured what's the harm in wearing a little red string around my wrist? I sort of felt protected - and if nothing else other than help me hold my head up higher, it seemed worth it.
But way before I knew of the power of the crimson thread, I knew of the power of the … wait for it … the safety pin. Apparently the safety pin (or “bulafka” as the Russians call it) was going to protect me from the evil eye. The first time I took my baby to meet lots of new people, the first and main question all the Russians asked was, “Did you put a bulafka on her?”
It doesn’t end there. "Knocking on wood" has nothing on the Russians. I grew up hearing all sorts of superstitions. Us Soviets are a pessimistic breed and it’s reflected in all of the things we do to avoid bad luck.
For example, when a Russian receives a compliment or positive feedback, you should spit three times over your left shoulder. As demonstrated in this little exchange:
ME: “Mackenzie slept through the night. She’s such a good baby!”
MY MOTHER: “Shh. We need to knock!" And she proceeds to search for something upon which to knock and then matches it with a spastic spitting three times over her left shoulder.
There is a plethora of ways to bring about bad luck to Russians.
If someone steps on your foot, you have to step back on theirs; otherwise you will both have bad luck. If you are lying down on the floor, and someone accidentally steps over you, you have to let them step back, otherwise it will stunt your growth. If you want to get married, don’t sit at the corner of a table. Doing so will cost you 7 more years of singlehood.
Birthday parties should always be celebrated on or after one’s birthday, not before. A funeral procession brings good luck, but you can never cross its path or else its Ruskee doomsday!
There are all sorts of gift restrictions. If you give someone a wallet as a gift, you have to make sure you put a dollar in it, so they won't end up poor. You can also never give knives as a gift. If you get them as a gift, give the person a dollar so that it’s as if you’re buying them from them. Baby showers are an absolute no-no. You should only buy gifts for a child once it’s been born. (This is also common in Jewish practice.)
It’s bad luck to whistle in the house; it will make you lose money. If you have forgotten something after you’ve left the house, it’s bad luck to go back for it. (Apparently if you must go back, you have to look in the mirror before you leave the house again.) When you leave for a trip, everyone in the family should sit, calmly and silently for a few seconds before we leave. (I still do this before every single trip.)
Now this is a big one. “Don’t show on yourself.” It is bad luck to use physical hand gestures to demonstrate something negative on yourself. For example, if you are describing a scar you saw on someone else’s face, you should never gesture it on your own.
In my family, the broken mirror reigned as supreme bad luck giver. We feared it like no other. The story goes back to when my father was in the army. When he opened his shaving kit one morning to reveal a broken mirror, he shivered. His father died the same day. The superstition was confirmed in his head.
Then there are Omens.
If you have the hiccups, someone is thinking about you. If a bird poops on your head, you’ll have good luck. If your right hand itches, you’re going to get money soon; if your left hand itches, you’re going to give money away. (This had me going when I was young and my parents would play the lottery and then the right hand would itch. Scratching their palms, we all believed it was a sign ... but alas, the lottery tickets were nothing more than book marks.)
Finally, there’s the one that if you sneeze while you’re saying something, it’s "Na Pravda" - for the truth. But I thought this was picked up by the Americans too?
These are just the ones I heard in my house; there are so many more - and not only in the Russian culture. My ex-husband was Chinese and they have a whole slew of their own "Don't do this ... or else" ways to paralyze your life. When my 8-year-old was born, I had a trifecta of cultural superstitions mandating all sorts of ridiculous rules: the Russians, the Chinese and the Jews.
I came up with my own logic - and try to maintain (and find) it daily.
So do I continue to live my life void of any superstitions? Probably … but why tempt fate when you can just knock wood, spit three times, and wear a red bracelet tied together with a bulafka to keep it all away?