“Oh — you mean superstitions’?”
This was how most of my interviewees reacted when I asked them about Orthodox Jewish women’s customs and practices
I began researching Orthodox women’s religious lives, including these customs, some years after attending a lecture on “Jewish superstitions” given by Judith Weil. The practices she mentioned — not stepping over someone sitting on the floor (and having to step back over them if you do), tying red thread on babies’ cribs, saying “tfu tfu tfu” or “peh peh peh” to avert the evil eye — were entirely unfamiliar to me.
I grew up in Cornwall, the rural and hilly “toe” of the United Kingdom, far away from any Jewish community. I was also a bit of a purist, a fan of Maimonides with his emphasis on rationality and intellectual perfection. Although I was aware of standard English superstitions — such as not walking under ladders and avoiding looking at the new moon through glass — I had no idea that Jews had superstitions of their own. Surely Judaism was a rational religion that scorned dependence on any power that was not God? I was flabbergasted when all the other women at the lecture nodded in recognition at the customs mentioned, and chimed in with contributions of their own: “My mother always …”, “I learnt that from my grandmother … “, “In my family it was blue thread, not red thread …”. Were they practising a different religion? When I reported on the event to my American husband, further revelations were in store: his mother had also taught him not to step over people sitting on the floor, and had tied red thread to his baby carriage. Was this stuff everywhere?!
That’s how my doctoral research started. I had to find out why highly educated women — many with top-level jobs in the professional world — were still performing these rituals. I rapidly realized that I couldn’t study the customs in isolation; they are just one part of Orthodox women’s religious lives, which are curiously invisible to both male Jews and to the outside world. Six years, forty interviews, and one hundred questionnaires on folk practices later, my views have become more nuanced, my rationalist righteousness a little more compassionate.
It’s not a question of “belief,” really — though some women do believe passionately that such actions will protect their nearest and dearest or ensure good fortune. Others dismissed them out of hand, returning to the loaded term “superstition.” Some women were embarrassed to admit they did them — one, after laughing loudly at the mention of the ritual of “cutting the air” with scissors to aid a toddler’s first steps, reluctantly confessed, “We did it. I’m ashamed to tell you because it’s so ridiculous!”
Regardless of whether they believed in the rituals completely, many women spoke of their emotional charge.
But regardless of whether they believed in the rituals completely, many women spoke of their emotional charge. They associated the customs with people they loved, or with their childhood. It was clear they could no more abandon them than they could change the color of their eyes. One interviewee put it perfectly: “It’s a memory of what it was like to be a little girl in my parents’ home, and … I’m not anybody’s little girl any more, because I don’t have parents — so when I hear those things it’s lovely, even though I think it’s nonsense.”
These customs are part of the fabric of women’s Jewish lives, the constant and varying background on which are embroidered the big, official ceremonies of Judaism: lighting sabbath candles, going to the mikveh, attending synagogue. They tie women to their ancestors, to their mothers and grandmothers and aunts and cousins, many of whom would have been denied Orthodox Jewish women’s current access to Torah study and (some) public rituals, and would have found an important means of spiritual expression in these customs. So much of women’s concerns, identity, and history imbues these little-known and often despised practices. Over the course of the research, I learned to value the reassurance and warmth they offered.
It’s not a uniformly rosy picture, though. I heard about a woman who had suffered several miscarriages, and had been advised to bake challah every week and give it away as a segulah (roughly a charm) to protect her current pregnancy. One week, time was short. Although she baked the challah, there was no chance to give it away, so she froze it, intending to find a recipient after the sabbath. And that was the day she had yet another miscarriage — and reacted by blaming herself for it. But it’s rare to encounter a custom that backfires in this way, and as long as there is no potential for harm, I now feel untroubled by their presence in so many women’s lives, and can smile with those who lovingly tell me about their cherished family traditions.
And that has brought something back to me. My mother taught me that I should always poke a hole through the shell of a boiled egg after eating it, “in case a witch comes and takes it and rides out to sea in it to wreck a ship!,” and I still do this “religiously.” There is a picture illustrating this in one of her childhood books from the 1920s, a black-and-white drawing to which my mother, as a child, had carefully added watercolor washes of lilac and sepia, and a dark crimson shawl for the witch. I don’t believe in witches, but I can attest to the power of that fragile, broken eggshell to carry memory and love.
Dr Taylor-Guthartz is a research fellow at the Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester, currently studying the history and development of Limmud. She received her doctorate from University College London. She has lectured at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, SOAS, King’s College London, and at Vassar College, New York, is a Research Fellow of the London School of Jewish Studies, and has presented at international conferences in Poland, South Africa, and the Netherlands. She received Orthodox rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Maharat, New York in June 2021.