As we move through October our minds turn towards the ghoulies and ghosties and long-legeddy beasties that begin to appear in our windows and yards. Yiddish culture, too, is populated by demons and imps and all manner of fell supernatural forces buffeting the Jew going about his or her daily life.
Yiddish folk culture teems with references to uncanny creatures such as “shéydim” (demons or ghosts), “mazíkim” (imps or demons), “néviklekh” (imps) “dibúkim” (ghosts of the dead that posses a living person’s body, and the subject of one of the most famous works of Yiddish literature, S. An-Ski’s “The Dybbuk”), “domónikes” (hobgoblins), “babáyes” (demons), “lapitútn” (little demons), “volkelákn” (werewolves), or “shrétlekh” (goblins or gnomes). It does not take a lot of searching to find names of demons like “Áshmeday” (Asmodeus, the demon king), “Lílis” (Lilith, the queen of the demons), or the sleep disrupting “zmóre.”
Sometimes derived from Rabbinic demonology and given a healthy dose of support from the supernatural folk beliefs of surrounding East European cultures these Jewish beliefs have left a very long shadow on modern Yiddish culture. Given the dangers of pregnancy and childbirth, for example, charms and amulets to keep Lilith, who had a penchant for newborns, at bay proliferated in Jewish Eastern Europe. And I knew a professor at university who simply refused to speak to anyone when in the bathroom because, in his words, “that’s where the shéydim are.”
Perhaps the most frequently encountered in this demonic cast of characters is the “Eynhóre,” or “Eynóre” (Evil Eye). This force lurks everywhere, always at the ready to strike at all who let their guard down. It is particularly attracted to anyone mentioning good fortune, positive attributes, or achievements. As a result, Yiddish culture shies away from excessive praise. An attractive or well-behaved baby, for example, could well be referred to as a “míeskayt” (revolting creature) or even a “mámzerl” (little bastard) so as to deflect the Evil Eye’s attention. And “gebn émetsn an eynhóre” (to give someone an evil eye) means to give someone bad luck or harm by excessively praising them, because by doing so you’ve planted a bullseye on them for the Evil Eye to zero in on.
While the Evil Eye is everywhere, it is also on the whole a rather stupid force, easily diverted and warded off. Because we have a tendency to count things we want, like, or cherish (as in counting our blessings), the Evil Eye is drawn to acts of enumeration. If I asked you, for example, how many children you had, you would never answer “dray” (three). Rather you would reply “nit dray” (not three), thus parrying the overly credulous Evil Eye. This has led to the single most famous apotropaic formula in Yiddish: “keyneynóre” or “keyneynehóre” or “keynehóre” (no Evil Eye). One ought, of course, simply avoid praising something. But if that is not possible, you can mention the good thing and immediately say “keynehóre,” which will hopefully send the Evil Eye off to look for a less vigilant victim. If I ask you how you are doing and you respond “keynehóre” I will know instantly that you’re doing well. Conversely, given its status as almost grammatical superstition, you can “gebn émetsn an eynhóre” simply by omitting the word. The force of the speaker’s ill will in James Matisoff’s wonderful example: “un itst fort er arúm in a Kédilek!” (“And now he’s driving around in a Cadillac!”) is propelled not only by the sarcastic intonation but also, and perhaps even more so, by the glaring absence of the “keynehóre.”
So enjoy all the “tsúkerlekh” (candy), avoid the Evil Eye, and as always, “léyent gezúnterhéyt”—read it in good health!
Dr. Finkin, the Rare Book and Manuscript Librarian at the Klau Library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, writes a monthly column for The American Israelite, on Yiddish, the area of his academic expertise. Please address questions for Dr. Finkin to firstname.lastname@example.org.