I am a first-generation American. My mom and grandma were both born in the Soviet Union, in what is now known as Belarus. They emigrated to Brooklyn, New York in 1994.
Yes, we are Russian-speaking Jews.
No, we are not spies.
No, we are not cold-hearted.
And no, we are not surrounded by bears.
The Russian-speaking Jewish community (RSJ) faced anti-Semitism throughout the Soviet Union. Most of our families endured unimaginable hardships: the Pogroms, World War II, and the Holocaust. Many RSJ families fled after the USSR fell in 1991. Over a million went to Israel and over 300,000 went to the United States.
My family and I live in the largest Russian-speaking Jewish community in the US. When I walk through South Brooklyn and see Cyrillic letters and ladies selling piroshki, then I know I’m home.
What makes us who we are? Superstitions are a big part of our cultural identity. We love our superstitions even if we hate our superstitions. And we take them very seriously. Some superstitions have Russian Orthodox roots and others have Jewish roots. It’s hard to tell where they come from.
While the superstitions are often funny and ridiculous, it’s important to recognize that they were created as survival mechanisms. Our families had to focus on survival during very difficult times. Our superstitions are a way to maintain health, survival, and stability.
My family keeps many of these superstitions. I’m still not sure if we actually believe in them, or if it is just pure habit. Either way, they’re an essential part of our daily lives:
1. Sit before you go on a long journey.
Or, садятся “на дорожку.”
If you are leaving for a long trip, you must sit down for a minute before you go. This is your moment to reflect on your time in a place. Don’t rush it. Appreciate the space and appreciate your company. Then, when you feel ready, get up and go.
If you forget something at home after you sit down and leave, you have to be very careful. Avoid coming back into the home because this could bring great misfortune. If you have to return, you must look into a mirror in the home and then spit three times to your left. (My family spits to the right, but most families spit to the left).
If you do not look into the mirror and spit three times, then bad luck is heading your way.
We’ve got other superstitions that involve travel and good luck, too. For example, you cannot clean the home while someone is on their way traveling. If someone is on a plane and the plane has not landed yet, you should not clean the house until they arrive safely or they will get bad luck.
2. Pfu, pfu, pfu.
Let’s say you say something bad. Something bad that could theoretically happen.
“I hope a car runs me over.”
“I’m going to fail this exam.”
If you want to prevent this event, you must immediately spit on your left or right side three times. You must make a “pfu” sound three times and tilt your head slightly.
My family spits to the right side. Many families spit to the left. The side you spit on is actually pretty controversial.
As the thinking goes, there are two angels on your shoulders. There’s the bad angel on your left shoulder and the good angel on your right shoulder. If you spit on your left, you are feeding/bribing the bad angel to make sure only good things happen.
It’s an impulse reaction. If I say anything remotely bad that could happen, I have to do it. Pfu, pfu, pfu.
3. Girls do not sit at the corner of a table.
If you want to get married, avoid the corner of a table. From a young age, I was constantly moved away from the corner. My mom would immediately panic as soon as I tried to sit down and she begged me to move. If you sit at the corner of a table, you will not get married.
There are a lot of other superstitions that involve marriage and reproduction. If you drop a knife on the ground, it means a man is coming your way. If you sit on the cold ground, your ovaries might freeze. Yes, these superstitions have sexist roots. They assume that women want to get married. They assume that women want to have children. They assume that marriage and children are our main priorities in life.
The superstitions also display something very meaningful. Family matters above all else. The continuation of our people has always been our main priority. During difficult times, marriage and new children brought incredible joy.
4. Do not walk barefoot at home.
Tapochki. Tapochki. Tapochki.
If you come into an RSJ home, expect to put on some tapochki, or home shoes. Don’t worry, we have plenty for guests. Tapochki are vital in our community. Without them, we would have to walk barefoot. And no, socks are not good enough. Too thin. Your outside shoes are no good either. Too dirty. The solution: tapochki.
What happens when you walk barefoot? You will become sick. Very sick. If you do get sick, your family will remind you about your “barefoot at home” incident for days and days.
“Well, you should have worn tapochki.”
Many superstitions stem from avoiding sickness. Sickness was our greatest worry for generations. Even if the barefoot-sickness theory has not been scientifically proven, for us, it’s not worth the risk. Better safe than sorry.
These are just a few of our many superstitions. There are hundreds more. While they may seem silly, old habits die hard. Generations have passed, but these superstitions stayed with us. It’s our way of staying connected to the past, and to each other.
Image by The Digital Artist/Pixabay