I’m not superstitious, but pooh-pooh-pooh just for good measure

I came home to find my 12-year-old on the couch, mending her favorite pajamas — while she was wearing them. “Look, Mom,” she said, lifting a knee patched with pink thread. “Good job!” I replied with false cheer. I spared her what I was really thinking.

Didn’t she know she was tempting the fates?

Superstitions are always strange, and often comical, but this was probably the weirdest bubbe meises my mother passed down: If you wear a piece of clothing while it’s being sewn, you need to chew on a piece of bread — otherwise, God will think you’re being sewn into your shroud. While it may appear that you’re getting your favorite pants hemmed, really you’re a corpse. Or about to become one.

Even as the words came out of my mouth, I knew how crazy they sounded, and the look Maya gave me confirmed it. I could have backpedaled and turned it into a “teachable moment” about the origin of old wives’ tales and how they’re passed through the generations. Instead, I told her not to worry, she didn’t really have to eat bread — she could just pretend to be chewing.

I taught my daughter how to cheat death! Now that’s some stellar parenting.

Of course, like all superstitions, this one doesn’t hold up when scrutinized in the least. How could God be so … how to put this … clueless? Isn’t he in charge of the whole who-shall-live-and-who-shall-die department? Or maybe he outsources. It can’t be easy tracking 13 million Jews all by yourself. And if somehow word reaches God that you’re about to go 6 feet under, then what — does he try to cover his slip-up and finish you off?

I never considered these kinds of questions growing up. Superstitions — and there were many — were so obviously meant to keep me and my sisters safe, and it was often fun to act them out. What kid doesn’t like magic? If we sneezed during a conversation about sickness or death, we were supposed to pull on our left ear to ward off the evil eye. If we knocked over the salt, we had to throw a pinch over our left shoulder; same reason.

Every culture has its superstitions, but the Russians might take the prize for excess. It’s likely many of the bubbe meises I heard as a child originated in the motherland: If your ears burn, someone is talking about you. If someone finds an eyelash on you, he should hold it up so you can make a wish and blow it away.

Sure, bubbe meises are silly. But I don’t really mind. There’s something charming about them, an enduring appeal that’s related to their directness and the absence of religious doctrine. For the same reasons, I can appreciate the concept of an evil eye more than the idea of an amorphous God who, let’s face it, comes off as unpredictable and demanding.

For me (and I’m sure many others), superstitions serve a higher purpose. They are a connection to my past, to my mother, and to the stories she told about her family. She lost both parents before she was 21, and although she continued believing in God, her faith was crushed by the fact that bad things could and did happen to good people.

Her painful history made her understandably anxious about keeping her own family intact. We couldn’t walk on opposite sides of a telephone pole or other sidewalk obstacle without her saying, “Bread and butter!” She wanted to make sure we would always stick together.

Michael Shermer, who wrote “Why People Believe Weird Things,” notes “a relationship between the uncertainty of an environment and the level of superstitious belief.”

I can relate. I recently learned I have an elevated “external locus of control,” a personality trait that determines how much individuals believe circumstances result from outside forces. I don’t think destinies are predetermined, but I do think some people have more than their share of luck, good or bad.

It’s not a huge leap from that kind of thinking to spitting at someone (pooh-pooh-pooh) to ward off tragedy.

Why tempt the fates? That’s why when my kids walk on the other side of a pole from me, I shout “Bread and butter!” Just in case.


Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s managing editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.