As my mother approaches her 101st birthday, her mind is on fire with long-ago memories. Today, she told me the story of her grandmother, Sarah Plotkin Weintraub, who, in the early 20th century, was the medicine woman and exorcist in the Jewish ghetto of Chernosk, in Ukraine, before she packed up and landed in Cleveland, Ohio.
At least I think it was in Chernosk. Mom says that a cousin of hers, who came later, said that they were from “Chernoska,” although that cousin didn’t speak any English, so we’re not sure what she was referring to. Today, a google search yields “Chernovcy,” and “Chernivtsi,” neither of which I know how to pronounce, but both of which appear to refer to the same place. Further evidence that we’re talking about the same place is the Wikipedia mention that the town [however it’s pronounced] was once known as “Jerusalem upon the Prut” [a river, part of which forms Romania’s border with Moldova and Ukraine].
In Chernosk, great-grandma Weintraub was the go-to person for medicinal remedies. I don’t know precisely what cures she served up to the folks in the ghetto and in surrounding shtetls. But back then, presumably, herbs and rubs and teas were the miracle drugs of the day.
But great grandma Sarah’s powers went beyond herbal cures. She was also the neighborhood ghost-buster.
How does my mother know that great grandma Sarah was an exorcist? Because, as a toddler, my mother was the target of one of Sarah’s exorcism rituals.
It all started with my mother’s Uncle Willie. He never married and had no children, but he adored all of his nieces and nephews. He adored them so much that, whenever he saw them, he smothered them with hugs and kisses and heaped them with compliments—wild, exaggerated compliments about how beautiful they were, how smart they were, how all-over wonderful, special and unique they were.
But, according to Jewish superstition, saying nice things about kids was bad. Uncle Willie’s family, like many of the times, believed that there was a thing called the “Evil Eye.” In Yiddish, it’s still referred to as the “Nehora” or “Eyin Ha Rah,” or pronunciations sort of like that. The prevailing superstition was that, if your child was seen to be too perfect, too lovable, too special, the Evil Eye would strike with some form of punishment. When your child received a compliment, you had to do something to protect her: One precaution was to spit and to utter a Yiddish phrase designed to keep the Evil Eye away.
Uncle Willie, in his good intentions, was considered guilty of tempting the Evil Eye. And one day, during a family gathering, he apparently went too far in praising my mother [who was, a look at ancient family photos reveals, clearly an adorable child].
That’s when great grandma Sarah leapt into action, with the anti-Evil Eye nuclear option of the era.
My mother still remembers it, almost a century later—that’s how traumatic it must have been. Sarah plopped Mom into her high chair. Then she started chanting, or singing. [It must have all been in Yiddish. Sarah never learned to speak English]. Then she grabbed a live chicken, held it by a wing–or maybe a leg–and began swinging it over her head as she circled the high chair, again and again. It must have been a very scary event—for the chicken, too–but that was part of the deal: It was supposed to be so scary that it would frighten away the Evil Eye.
To be fair to great grandma Sarah, this behavior was not a sign of mental illness. There was a certain contemporaneous, religion-based logic to what she was doing. She didn’t just arbitrarily grab a chicken, when there might have been other options, such as a lamb chop or a brisket or a hunk of gefilte fish. In Jewish superstition, chicken was the prescribed choice for exorcising demons: It was part of a ritual known in Yiddish as “shloch capores,” [variously spelled], in which the chicken was the scape-poultry that, as it was being flung, absorbed the evil vibes.
And, lest you smirk at such antiquated silliness, be advised that, in the 21st century, some observant and tradition-minded Jews still perform this ritual. Not as an official “exorcism,” but as a pre-High Holidays tradition, to cleanse themselves of their pre-atonement sins. Many years ago, before I quit religion, I attended a shloch capores ceremony at a Jewish retreat, where a rabbi twirled a chicken and then flung it into the lake, where it presumably died and took our collective wrongdoings with it. Of course, like other rituals, it has its variations: Back in my great grandmother’s day, I’m told, most people slaughtered the chicken post-kapores and then cooked it and ate it. [I didn’t know it at the time, but the persistence of these kinds of beliefs, rituals and traditions contributed to my later decision to fling myself away from religion.]
Anyway, Mom’s exorcism must have worked. She’s lived a long and happy life, with no evidence of any punishment by the Evil Eye, even though she has been complimented through the years for her talents and has herself tempted the Evil Eye many times by her kindness and praise toward us, her three daughters.