A Dollar Tree store is moving into my nearby shopping center, which desperately needed a new anchor store once Ace Hardware stopped carrying anchors. Locals are upset because they disagree with Bob Sasser, Dollar Tree’s CEO, that “Dollar Tree is a great fit for the shopping center.” With the chain’s creative motto (“Everything for One Dollar”) and rock-bottom prices, it’s hard to argue that customers are disadvantaged, except for the exploding cost of gas from repeatedly returning defective merchandise.
Let’s face it: Going cheap does not come cheap. I was reminded of that when I discovered the website Yalyjudaica.com (“Israeli Exotic Jewelry and Accessories”) that features all sorts of wholesale goods, including amulets. Most cultures have produced magical charms like amulets — symbols or jewelry with written text that are worn for protection against evil, illness or danger — and Judaism is no exception. Over the centuries, talmudic rabbis dismissed amulets as superstitious practices. Even Maimonides weighed in: “They have no potency or virtue whatsoever. Mishegas. They suck.” However, even Maimonides permitted the wearing of amulets because of the psychological relief it offers to the disturbed mind.
Whether the amulets work or not, I would be reluctant to buy one on the cheap. Yalyjudaica has a special listing for “one dollar bazaar” items that are “factory leftovers.” If, according to kabbalistic thought, it’s believed that amulets tap the powers of demons and spirits and use them to perform miracles, why would I want to buy an amulet that, considering its puny price, obviously has been deflated of power? If I want to go up against demons and spirits, don’t I need the supersized amulet?
When rabbinic authorities couldn’t stop the use of amulets, they chose to regulate them and the amulet writers. There are four tests for an approved amulet writer (and therefore the amulet): 1) If the approved amulet has been used successfully on three different people and works three times; 2) If three amulets are successful for three people and each works one time; 3) If one amulet works for three people, the amulet is approved but not the amulet writer; 4) If the amulet writer knows three people who don’t work and the amulet cannot provide them with work or at least unemployment insurance, the amulet is not approved.
One of the most famous amulet writers, the revered Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri of Israel, who also taught Kabbalah, died in 2006. He was once asked if he forces an oath on demons when he writes his amulets. “God forbid!” he reportedly said. “It is forbidden to force them to take an oath. I only ask nicely. If they want to listen to me, they listen.”
What is particularly remarkable about Rabbi Kaduri is the age he died — 108! I rarely hear about any Jews or any person living to 108. It reminds me of my Grandmother Bertha (“Birdie”) Gevurtz, who lived to 102.
What, I’ve wondered, do these two long-living Jews — she was born in 1895, he in 1898 — have in common? Rabbi Kaduri was born in Baghdad. Grandma Birdie used to go to Portland’s Bagdad Theater. He was a bookbinder. She knew a Murray Bookbinder. But there the similarities stop. Although Grandma survived the San Francisco earthquake, diabetes and ulcers, she spent most of her life smoking and using saccharine. She didn’t need an amulet (she wore diamond studs) and knew how to give the Evil Eye. I once put together a (OK, last minute) scrapbook for my parent’s 40th wedding anniversary. Grandma hissed under her breath, “Are you sure you could spare the time and price?”
Sometimes I fantasize what would’ve happened if Rabbi Kaduri had met my grandmother before he married his second wife (he was over 90). It would’ve made a good match because at 90-plus, Grandma would’ve had a pious companion, and because she could barely see or hear, he would’ve been able to write his amulets in peace.
I sort of believe in the power of amulets. A few years ago I gave a hamsa (the hand-shaped amulet) to a friend with a permanent severe gastric disorder where most of her colon had been removed and a gastric “pacemaker” put in. Since then, she’s had no recurrence and is in good health! (Technically, she still has the serious gastric disorder, and the pacemaker, but it doesn’t bother her. The past few years she’s developed substantial memory loss.)
Trudi York Gardner lives in Benicia and can be reached at email@example.com or via her blog, www.tygerpen.wordpress.com.