Nothing was working out that year. My husband had just switched careers at the height of the recession, and we were flat broke. Though my first novel had been published and well received, everything I wrote since then had turned to dust.
One of my children had come down with a rare illness – manageable, curable, yes, but it was serious enough that it felt like a plague, took out our kishkes tending to her. On top of it, everything in the house was breaking. Pipes were bursting right and left, and even the toilet clogged every third time it was flushed. When you can’t even count on your toilet flushing, the world seems black.
I got a call from a friend who said, “This is all about the evil eye.” I imagined her sipping her bancha tea in her apartment as she said this.
Evil eye? Of course I had heard of it. My mother, from Casablanca, Morocco, was on the superstitious side. Her mother, my Grandma Estrella, was even more superstitious. They believed in hidden forces that would take away a new car, job promotions, their good looks and talents, or maybe prevent happy things from coming their way. A random compliment, someone showing off her new baby – all this reflexively brought on mutterings of “Keyn’e hore!” (no evil eye), followed by cries of “A-willee, a-willee!” I turned up my nose at all this – this voodoo.
“I don’t believe in superstitions. It’s not Jewish,” I said to my friend.
“It’s not a superstition,” she replied. “Ayin-hore” – the evil eye – is real. The Talmud mentions it a lot.”
“Yeah,” I thought, “but the Talmud also says it only affects you to the degree you buy into it.” At least that’s what I’d heard from my rabbi. “Come on,” I said. “Something must be going on with you.”
Actually, she’d been having tsoris and her own publishing woes. She admitted she’d recently made contact with an evil eye expert in Jerusalem. “She had mine removed,” my friend blurted.
Like a gallbladder. Like mascara. I shook my head in disbelief. My funky friend had crossed a line.
A few days later, our washing machine broke. We couldn’t afford to get a new one. One more plague, I thought as I schlepped two duffel bags to the laundromat.
More “plagues” occurred. My agent dropped me – gave up on my second novel and sent me the divorce papers.
My bancha tea friend called a few days later with “great news”: A publisher had taken up the memoir that she had been working on for years.
“And this is just after I had a consultation with the ayin-hore lady,” she noted. For good measure, she added, “Just because you can’t see the ayin-hore doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
I scribbled down the ayin-hore lady’s number.
When all else fails, why not try something new?
Why not? Because it was silly, and I swore to myself I would work rationally and hard, not relying on superstitions.
Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to make the call. This was just the kind of crazy thing my grandmother would’ve suggested. “Go ahead, darling,” she’d say. “Why not?” Why not? Because it was silly, and I swore to myself a long time ago, I would not lead a silly life. I would work rationally and hard, not relying on superstitions. Whether the Talmud said so or not, I associated ayin-hores with all the irrationalities and craziness that fueled my grandparents’ existence: their incessant, childish lovers’ quarrels; their complete investment in talismans and things that didn’t matter – gold bangles, Hamsa necklaces – to make the evil eye avert its gaze, a neurotic attachment to food, including kibbeh, couscous, Moroccan candy cigars, a grilled green pepper salad that took hours to make.
Finally, after a few more months of bad news, I was brought to my knees.
I called the woman furtively, when no one else was home, certain that my husband, a psychoanalyst, would just dismiss the evil eye as an unconscious projection of one’s own evil.
A woman with an Israeli accent picked up the phone: the ayin-hore lady herself. She sounded in her 40s or 50s. In the background I heard kitchen noises, as though she were in the middle of cooking supper. It was 10 a.m. in New Jersey, so it had to be 5 p.m. in Jerusalem.
I introduced myself. “How does this work?” I asked, hinting at the price. “You can send me a check for $101,” she said.
I reeled. That was a lot. This wasn’t just a lark or caper, something I could joke about afterward with friends. It meant that I had bought something or bought into something, a whole ideology. I hesitated. “Well,” I thought. “If that was the going rate for spirits to leave, nowadays….” I took down her address.
Before she started her procedure – blay gisn, it’s called in Yiddish – she asked for my Hebrew name and my mother’s name.
My mother’s name is Rachel. My name was a different story. I had at least four names, actually, given to me at different times by people who inadvertently made a big mess of things. To give you an idea, the first Sabbath after I was born, my father, who was not an observant man at the time, stumbled into a synagogue, of I don’t know which denomination, in Nashville, Tenn., and told the men that he wanted to name his daughter Yishayahu Falk. According to family lore, he was calmly told that this was a man’s name and unsuitable. The synagogue congregants promptly gave a name they thought was suitable, but my father, who was completely unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, could not remember it. And so…. The ayin-hore lady cut through the clutter. “Your name is Ruchama, daughter of Rachel,” she pronounced.
There was a sound of pots and pans clattering. I asked what she was doing. “Heating lead on the stove,” she explained.
I felt a little shock. How medieval. But what did I expect? I was entering Grandma Estrella’s realm now, an overwrought, superstitious world I had sworn I wanted no part of. Okay, but when everything’s falling apart, you sometimes have to reach for the irrational.
I heard men’s voices in the background, people coming in and out, doors slamming, voices calling out friendly rabbinic greetings in Hebrew and Yiddish. There seemed to be a yeshiva in her house, men who had arrived in time for supper. The ayin-hore lady made casual conversation with her visitors and with me. She projected no aura whatsoever. I liked her plain speech.
More pan movements. “What now?” I said.
”You have the biggest ayin-hores against you I ever saw!”
“I’m pouring the melted lead into another pan with cold water,” she replied; then she went quiet. I got the feeling she was praying. Or maybe she was really making supper? Who could really know? Maybe there was a bunch of pots lined up on her counter, each needing its own ayin-hore treatment. Better not mix up the pots, I thought.
She made clucking noises: “Hashem yishmor! (“Heaven forfend!”) You have the biggest ayin-hores against you I ever saw!”
In my gut I felt terror.
Then I rolled my eyes. Come on, an evil eye remover is predisposed to see those little buggers everywhere, just like homeopaths see parasites lurking in everyone’s intestines. To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
“How can you tell?” I asked.
She responded: “The bubbles in the lead. They’re like eyes.” She stirred some more. “Huge,” she exclaimed.
I nodded – sure, sure. She probably said that to all her customers. Still, I felt scared, and a little proud, too, as if having the largest ayin-hore were something to brag about.
“I’m doing it all over again, until the eyes disappear,” she let me know.
Maybe she should use Shout, I thought.
“They won’t disappear so fast,” she said in a worried voice.
Now I fretted: Why weren’t they going down so fast? Then I shook myself. I was worried, as if this were real, had validity, as if it weren’t sheer nonsense.
Finally, she announced she was done. She talked about my ayin-hore situation. I don’t recall everything she said about me, but she ended with, “There are people who are talking about you, who are jealous of you, begrudge your success.” What success? I thought. “Very, very jealous. They try to pull you down. I have never seen anyone who has so many people giving her an ayin-hore. Oy, oy, so many bubbles in the lead. And so big. But don’t worry,” she said with satisfaction, “I got them all.”
Good, I thought grimly. Stomp them all. Obliterate every last one. Kill the little buggers.
Because who could know what forces were out there in the universe? After all, if germs and bacteria and electrons and protons existed way before anyone discovered their reality, why was it inconceivable that invisible demons – ayin-hores – existed, even if we couldn’t yet prove they were there? I thought of all those imps, dybbuks and demons in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s fiction. I thought of the phrase “Looks can kill.” Well, maybe jealousy can kill, too.
We shmoozed some more, the ayin-hore lady and I, as the world continued to stream through her kitchen. She interrupted me, interrupted herself, totally unfazed by the chaos, the sheer bedlam. The woman was nothing if not haimish. Then she gave me a heartfelt blessing, and we said goodbye.
After I got off the phone, I felt elated, relieved. I wanted to call my mother to tell her everything. I felt closer to her and to my grandmother, as if I had claimed some long-denied part of myself. In fact, I felt better than I had in months.
Just as I was about to write the check, I got distracted. Tomorrow, I’d send it. The next day I wrote the check, but couldn’t find an envelope. The following week, more excuses kept cropping up. At some point it hit me that I didn’t want to pay her. True, I felt better, but I couldn’t believe that a woman busting lead bubbles in a kitchen sink in Jerusalem could’ve brought that about. I couldn’t believe I had succumbed to something so ridiculous. It occurred to me that not paying was a way of hiding from myself what I had consented to – something silly and irrational, something I’d sworn I’d never do. Paying made the episode too real. This way I could pretend it never happened.
But wouldn’t not keeping my word be its own form of ayin-hore? I have been a fool for love many times. Why couldn’t I let myself be a fool for this? Why couldn’t I just let myself be a fool?
And so I confessed to my husband and asked if he could mail the check for me. “Of course,” he said. “Anything to help get rid of the ayin-hore.”
Since this piece initially came out, people have been asking if the “curse” ever lifted. Well, my husband’s career ripened and prospered, my daughter’s condition improved dramatically, and around then I won close to $13,000 in fellowships and awards for that novel I was working on. In fact, “In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” has just been released. Oh, and I became the owner of a washing machine.
How much of this was due to the evil eye procedure or just hard work, intense prayers and common sense (living without a washing machine was just plain foolish)? And what about the fact that on the heels of the good tidings came difficult things, too? (I never thought to ask the ayin-hore lady if the procedure had a time warrantee.) I guess it’ll have to endure as a mystery among life’s mysteries.
This article originally appeared in The Forward, minus the P.S.