Academic journal article Western Folklore

The 1996 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture: "Let It Go to the Garlic!": Evil Eye and the Fertility of Women among the Sephardim

Academic journal article Western Folklore

The 1996 Archer Taylor Memorial Lecture: "Let It Go to the Garlic!": Evil Eye and the Fertility of Women among the Sephardim

Article excerpt

I remember when I was a child something very beautiful. There was a neighbor who used to call me ojus sin kara (eyes without face/bright eyes). Every time she saw me, it seemed to my mother that she gave me the evil eye and I always got sick. It happened once a week, twice a week. Then they advised [my mother] to put in my pocket rumero (rosemary) and ruda (rue), especially when this lady saw me. And it was thus. Perhaps because of the superstition or something like it, ever since then I never removed the ruda from my pocket. And I was no longer sick.1

The foregoing recollection was given by a man at a gathering of Sephardim in Jerusalem, in 1982. It is one among many accounts which Isaac Jack Levy and I have gathered in the course of our research among Sephardic communities in Bosnia, Greece, Israel, Turkey, and Yugoslavia on folk religion, or what I prefer now to call "domesticated religion."2 In this paper, I would like to examine theories about spiritual health, and, most importantly, about the evil eye. My goal, both in the analysis of the Sephardic material, and in the review of the theories about spiritual health and illness will be to arrive at an examination of the gendered nature of the evil eye complex in Sephardic domesticated religion.

The evil eye complex spans Indo-European and Semitic cultures. Central to this belief is the concept that one can unintentionally or intentionally cause harm to an individual simply through thinking or expressing praise. Envy, then, is a crucial component: felt and expressed by humans, envy and greed awaken the spirits whose actions cause all manner of injury. As William Graham Sumner noted in Folkways (1906), "It is assumed that demons envy human success and prosperity and so inflict loss and harm on the successful" (506).

Scholarship on the evil eye is extensive, including Frederick Thomas Elworthy's The Evil Eve: An Account of this Ancient and Widespread Superstition (1895), Edward Gifford's The Evil Eye: Studies in the Folklore of Vision (1957), Clarence Maloney's edited volume, The Evil Eye (1976), and Alan Dundes's edited work, The Evil Eye: A Casebook (1981), as well as other works related to the evil eye, such as Bess Allen Donaldson's The Wild Rue (1938), Michael Molho's Usos y costumbres de los Sefardies de Salonica (1950), Abraham Galante's Histoire des juifs de Rhodes, Chios, Cos, etc. (1935), Melvin Firestone's "Magical Curing in the Seattle Sephardic Community" (M.A., 1939), and Linda-Anne Rebhun's "Contemporary Evil Eye in Northeast Brazil" (1995) .

This paper is concerned with the Sephardim who are the descendants of the Jews exiled from the Iberian Peninsula in the fifteenth century and who took refuge in the Ottoman Empire-specifically those who resided in the Balkans, the Dodecanese Islands, and in Turkey, as well as their descendants who emigrated to other lands. The Sephardim of these areas were linked together linguistically and historically. Their language is Judeo-Spanish, a combination mainly of Medieval Spanish, and adoptions from Hebrew, Turkish, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, French, Greek, and Italian. The events of history provide a further unifying bond: the Balkan countries, the Dodecanese Islands, and Turkey were part of the Ottoman Empire for over five hundred years. With geographic proximity and frequently with friendly borders, there has been a constant exchange and interaction among these Sephardim. They are a people with religion, folklore, language, and history in common. In sum, the Sephardim of this area form a sub-culture within the larger grouping of Sephardim. Dov Noy points to the importance of recognizing just such geographical units of study. Jewish folk religions, Noy writes, "differ from each other depending upon their ethnic and regional background" (1980:273). There is precedence for just such an approach. Joshua Trachtenberg, in Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion, focused on German Jewry, for, as he said, it "constituted culturally and historically a single community" ([1939] 1970:viii). …

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