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Warding Off Evil Spirits: Two Yiddish Incantations

Rebecca Boroson
September 9, 2016

from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents

A MEMORY: I am 5, walking alongside my baby sister’s stroller. An old woman, the kind you don’t see anymore, comes up beside us. She wears a kerchief over her head and thick, cotton, flesh-tinted, sagging stockings. Her fingers are gnarled. Her dress is mourning-black.

“What an ugly baby,” she tells my mother, from a mouth with no teeth. “What a meeskayt,” she says, a Yiddish word meaning ugliness. “I don’t know how you can look at her.”

And then the old woman purses her lips and, seemingly, spits — spits! — at my new sister. “Poo poo poo!” she says. “Poo poo poo!”

I kick her poor old leg and scream at her: “You old bag! How dare you call my beautiful sister ugly!”

When I was able to sit down again, my mother took me on her lap, kissed me, and introduced me to a great mystery: There are evil spirits all around us. You must never, ever, ever say anything good about anyone, or they might be attracted to that person and harm him or her. And if you happen to do so, you must immediately add, “Poo poo poo.”

It’s a truth so universally acknowledged that the villain of a short sci-fi story some years ago terrorized an entire neighborhood by praising the children. “He’s so smart he’s going to be a doctor,” she would say, or, “She’s so beautiful she could be a princess,” bringing parents to their knees, ready to do anything to pacify her.

My mother had been shockingly remiss in imparting this lesson. I was a great girl of kindergarten age, and who knows how many evil spirits I had unwittingly drawn? But she made up for her neglect thereafter. It was almost as if the old woman had been heaven-sent to correct our missteps. Not saying something good became a code I could read — and speak — after a while (and I wonder, now, that the evil spirits could not break the code as well).

fingersI EVEN SPEAK in the code to my children. They understand that when I say, “Who needs you? Who wants you? Who loves you? Not me, poo poo poo,” I am telling them, in code, that I love and treasure them. But they claim I also send another coded message: that the world’s a dangerous place, that life can’t be trusted, that any minute now our luck will turn.

Well, yes.

But I don’t want to live in fear, and I don’t want my children to. I’ve grown to understand that in order to stay alive, you have to trust life. You can’t always be looking over your metaphorical shoulder (and spitting over it, too).

Virtually every ethnic group all over the world, whether knocking wood for luck or tying red ribbons for protection around newborns’ wrists, fears evil spirits. If only we could keep them at bay.

Luckily, Noami Leaf Halpern, the lehrerin (teacher) of the Yiddish Vinkl (corner) of the Woodstock Jewish Congregation in Woodstock, New York, has provided me with two charms against the evil eye, which I pass on to you:

Zitsn dray vayber oyf a shteyn.
Eyn zogt yo, di tsveyte zogt neyn.
Di dritte zogt, “Fun vanen s’iz gekumen
Ahin zol es geyn.”
Poo poo poo.

Three old women sit on a stone;
One says yes, the second says no.
The third says, “Wherever it [the evil spirit] came from,
Back it must go.” Poo poo poo.

In balkn iz faran dray shpaltn.
Zol zikh dort
Dayne ayn hora bahaltn.
Poo poo poo.

In the balcony are three cracks.
Go there, Evil Eye,
And hide yourself.
Poo poo poo.

The “poo poo poo,” said in a more or less spitting fashion depending on one’s geographic antecedents, is essential.

Noami — her name rhymes with “homey” — was born in Jerusalem in 1914 and will celebrate her 102nd birthday on July 3. She learned the charms from her father, Reuben Leaf, a well-known painter, sculptor, and etcher who taught at Israel’s Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and Sarah Leaf, a sculptor and painter whose style Noami describes as naïf. Originally from Pinsk and Yekaterinoslav, they passed the charms down from their own parents. “Every Jewish family knew them,” Noami recalls. “You don’t learn this in school.”

By the way, I was surprised to hear sopranos Renee Fleming and Deborah Voigt, hosting Metropolitan Opera HD movie transmissions, use the similar expression “toi toi toi” as a wish for good luck. The host of the Bolshoi Ballet’s HD productions says “toi toi toi,” with the same meaning. (I guess that’s preferable to telling a dancer to “break a leg.”)

According to the website of the English Pocket Opera Company, toi-toi-toi-ing “is used to ward off a spell or hex, often accompanied by knocking on wood, spitting, or imitating the sound of spitting.” Saliva, apparently, like water splashed on the Wicked Witch of the East, is a universal solvent, with power to protect against fiends, demons, witches, and all manner of evil beings.

Rick Moranis sings of Pu-Pu-Pu (his spelling) in his 2013 album My Mother’s Brisket & Other Love Songs:

We ran into the Feldmans, man, did they look great
Mindy graduated with a 3.8
Milty says they’re just about to renovate
And don’t tell anybody but Debbie is late
When it’s too good to be true
Murray was indicted for insider trading
They moved the case to Delaware, they’re sitting and waiting
Running up a legal tab, their hopes were fading
Then Murray and the judge’s sister started dating
When it’s too good to be true
Call it what you like, a superstition
For me it’s just a logical position
I’m not claiming ominous premonitions
Just historically informed intuition
An evolutionary predisposition . . .

Moranis has it right: No matter how you spell it, poo poo poo is a love song. Its message is “I love you, I care about you, I wish I could shield you from all harm.”