Throwing Salt, Constructing the Homeland

Ariel Wills

My mother’s childhood has always fascinated me. As I get older the sharpness and clarity of her memories from a different time grow both more magical and more comforting. Many people in her stories aren’t alive anymore, and their memory is a blessing. When l travel through the memories with my mom, the logic of that little girl and her childhood perception becomes fused with my comprehension of who I am today, of where we come from, of the people and the lands so far away in both time and space. I am especially fascinated when she recalls family superstition, with how she drew conclusions about the state of reality and worked to maintain a sense of safety with her childhood logic. Here is one of her stories that illustrates this well.

Every Friday after school, when my mother was six years old, Grandma Hildy (my great grandmother) would pick up my mom and they’d go to visit Great-Grandma Mimi (my great-great grandmother). The LA Farmers Market was always next on their agenda. Each week they would purchase fresh corn rye with seeds and finish their trip with ice cream before traveling back over Laurel Canyon to Grandma Hildy and Grandpa Phil’s house. After reading carefully through the long list of ice cream flavors, my mom would always select a cone of orange sherbet. Until one day, when she decided she would try the rainbow sherbet. On the way home that day over the canyon, Hildy’s car began to smoke. To my mom’s horror, the smoke dramatically poured out the engine and they had to pull over and wait for help. Sitting on the curb felt desperate, and my mom had a secret. She was so worried about the safety of the car and was certain that it was all her fault. Something inside her identified the choice of rainbow sherbet as the cause of disruption. She didn’t tell anyone and never did that again.

Was this so out of the ordinary, for a six-year-old to determine such consequence was due to diversion from her normal routine? I don’t think so. The action of choosing orange sherbet over and over somehow maintained the perception of safety in my mother’s reality, for she was no stranger to superstitions, traditions, and distinct methods of protecting and relating with the world.

Growing up, my mother lived near the LA County Museum and was raised by a community of Yiddish-speaking sisters, most of whom stood proudly a few inches shy of five feet. My mom was born in 1958, in New Mexico. Our family emigrated to the United States in the late 1800s. They fled a land of shifting borders and sought safety from the violence of the pogroms in what is now Russia and Vilna, Lithuania. Like many other Jews from Eastern Europe, my family journeyed across the ocean to Ellis Island, then settled for a spell in Brooklyn, before making their way to Los Angeles. My mom told me it was because LA was considered a great place to raise kids. Back then, there were ponds and you could go fishing. Ironically, one of the reasons my family moved away from LA in 1999 was to find somewhere with more nature for me and my sister to grow up.

My mother asked Mimi about Vilna, and Mimi would say that the dybbuks would throw salt on people in Vilna. Dybbuks are malicious spirits from the land of the dead in Jewish folklore. They’d wait on the rooftops over the doorway and then when people would come out of the house, throw the salt. Mimi said that was the only story she knew of Vilna. Or, that’s the only story she would tell my mom. When asked for any memories other family might have, she’d answer, “How should I know?” and shrug her shoulders.

When I was younger, I assumed the tasks that busied grown-ups had a logic or reason behind them. Regardless of my comprehension of what it might be, I was used to learning, the world was new, and the unknown was comfortable for me to explore. Being myself a little girl, and quite curious, there were constantly questions to ask and no end to the reasons given, whether they proved satisfactory or ever could quench my thirst for information is another subject entirely, but generally the answers were fulfilling, and I was encouraged to proceed with an inquiring mind.

Almost 30 years later, my questions continued as I asked my mom if she remembered superstition while growing up in our family. Her response is as follows:

The first time I ever heard the word “superstitious” was when Cousin Valerie was complaining at Mimi. Oh, you’re so superstitious! It was because of something Mimi didn’t want her to do. I don’t remember what the thing was but I do remember the word because I’d thought she’d called Mimi “stupid dishes.” Mimi was saying not to do it, Valerie kept saying that nothing would happen. Mimi was pretty upset and chasing Valerie. Mimi explained to me what superstitious meant. I don’t recall her words. She also said not to pay attention to Valerie.

My mom had no remembrance of the specificity of the superstition yet clearly recalled how upset my great-great-grandma Mimi was when Valerie didn’t appease her. Today, my mom wouldn’t hold to a superstition with the same strictness as Mimi had, but still honors them with compassion. I feel that these customs forge a kind of intimacy within our family history and connect us to the community of the ancestors who came before us and therefore within culture belonging.

Family customs help us navigate between generations and the distance of history, where memory is confronted with different forms of sensibility. The parallels in the lives of my mother, my mother’s mother, and so on translate directly into my own understanding of my Jewishness and my ancestors. Intergenerational knowledge includes more than what is spoken, it’s also what’s in the gaps and ambiguity of the in-between. The sensibilities of difference, practice, and memory aren’t explicitly obvious, but are present in the subtle twitch and reaction of a body, in the anxieties and dreads you absorb as a child, and in the horror of a grandma if someone tempts the evil eye, the kinehora. These embodied reactions evolve over generations, just as my loving attempts to replicate my mom’s chicken soup recipe, even when I follow her directions carefully—parsnips, onion, carrots, celery, potato … —always ends up tasting slightly different than her grandma’s chicken soup, which she graciously points out to me if I do ever have the privilege of sharing my soup dinner with her, should we be in the same place.

Illustration by the author

I live on the east coast in Rhode Island; my mom is on the west coast in Oregon. Across the family distance, sites of memory keep us connected. Human migration, displaced peoples, and diaspora are familiar experiences to many families, and people’s traditions perpetuate the interdimensional ways in which the architecture of cultural heritage is forged. This phenomenon is of utmost fascination to me. Diaspora is the spread and dispersion of a large group of people with shared heritage or homeland around the world and away from their ancestral homeland. Customs help to forge a new local homeland or a connection to belonging. Donald Harman Akenson and Amitava Chowdhury explain how “diasporas exist in multiple locales in multiple host societies outside of the scope of a claimed homeland.”1 Customs help to bridge the resulting space between ancestries and cultivate a local homeland or a connection to belonging.

Language is an especially significant actor in stories of human migration and cultivation of home. My mom told me how the little women would come to Mimi’s house and all speak Yiddish. I’d hide under the table, in the legs and listen. Then I’d repeat what I’d heard to Mimi later. Somehow I’d learned to understand them all and it would make Mimi really happy and she’d laugh and tell Hildy and Auntie V what I’d heard and what I’d said.

When my mom was older, she asked Mimi to teach her some Yiddish. Mimi denied speaking Yiddish. My mom never believed her because she remembers her speaking to her sisters, and then one day she really caught her. The Orthodox man came by the house one day.

Mimi and I were outside talking on the lawn and he walked up in his Shtreimel (a big fur hat worn by many married Haredi men) and spoke lots of rapid Yiddish to Mimi—he just knew she’d understand! And she answered him right back! She was fluent! Later she told me it was nothing, just a few words here and there and that he was inviting her to Rosh Hashanah.

The validity of one’s Jewishness and the question of what kind of Jew are you in relation to the diaspora are common inquiries in which identity can slip into jeopardy. While visiting a friend from college in Brooklyn, I asked her about her own family history and experience of Judaism. She grew up in San Francisco, her father is Jewish, her parents occasionally used to take her and her sister to synagogue, and she worked for many consecutive summers as a counselor at a Jewish summer camp in Yosemite. I asked her if her family had any Jewish superstitions and she responded that she wasn’t sure if she felt she could identify with being Jewish or religious, but always felt she’d missed out on not having a Bat Mitzvah. Her Israeli ex-boyfriend’s mom called her a shiksa, a not so kind word that refers to a non-Jewish woman, especially in relation to a Jewish man.

In some ways her Jewishness was defined by the outside world, and by her own ideas about what it meant to be Jewish enough to fit into the Jewish community. In the flux of diaspora it is natural to seek a stable identity, a clear concept of what Jewish is or can be, yet in the context of diaspora, therefore a community in flux, this identity is constantly evolving, generation by generation. The residual habits, customs, and instinctual reactions can be the resulting site of deep and rich ancestral memory.

Growing up within family that consistently cultivates superstitions is an experience that didn’t become obvious to me right away, not until my mom stepped beyond her community, explaining how when these traditions occur in a life, when everyone around you does it as well, or when you’re little and haven’t seen a different way, it doesn’t stand out as a special occurrence. The customs we do choose to take along with us into our adult lives contextualize our identity, our space, our cultural relationship to the world and ancestors who came before us. I grew up throwing salt over my shoulder. I distinctly remember a conversation my parents had, I must have been around 11, in which they couldn’t agree upon whether it was the right or the left shoulder that one should throw salt over. Ever since that day I have compromised by throwing salt directly over my head, always careful to avoid my own hair. As I season my cooking I shake out a little extra salt and toss it behind me. I don’t know why the dybbuks would throw salt too, though I think it has something to do with bad luck, and reversing bad luck to ward off the evil eye. Certain superstitions boast a kind of equal and opposite logic.2

I asked a family friend named Amnon about his experience growing up with superstition, and how it related to being Jewish to him. He is Israeli and lives in Tel Aviv. Amnon’s response drew me closer to my curiosity about these very real yet ephemeral sensibilities found within Jewish culture. He said, “My family from both sides were totally secular and atheist for at least four generations, like many other German Jewish families. We had some ‘funny’ customs that we never took too seriously.” Indeed, humor and sarcasm are extremely common in Jewish literature, folktales, and culture, employed to navigate the bizarre and the inexplicability of this world.

Here are some of Amnon’s family’s superstitions:
1. When a child went to a new school we poured water after him or her so that their studies would run like water.
2. We never prepared the room and furniture for a newborn baby before they came from the hospital.

I am very familiar with customs around babies. In the Ashkenazi tradition Jewish people are very careful not to announce a new child before they are safely born. I even feel strange as I type this. It feels risky, somehow, indirectly. Again, kinehora!

My family is considered pretty secular as far as Jews go. My father is a mathematician and computer programmer, my mother is a teacher, an artist, a biologist, and loves to garden. My family does not keep Shabbat but we love to share Shabbat dinner when we are together. We don’t fast on Yom Kippur. Sometimes I eat pork, but I don’t really like it. I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. I am more concerned with the natural sciences than with the idea of God. It is quite common for Jews to identify as agnostic or even atheist and still consider themselves entirely Jewish.3 All of this being said, I would never dream of naming a child after a living relative, a rule from an Ashkenazi Jewish superstition. My mother told me that when she was pregnant with me, she was talking with Mimi and Auntie V about possible baby names and she mentioned that she wished she could name me Mimi, she thought Auntie V’s eyeballs were going to roll out of her head onto the floor. She was only saying that she liked the name but the tradition is too deep in the consciousness to tamper with at all. Mimi passed away when I was little, though I am grateful to have briefly met her. Maybe I will name my child Mimi someday.

Mimi had told my mom that she’d had the wild idea of naming her first-born son “Sutherland” but “Pop wouldn’t hear of it and had asked what kind of Jewish name that was?” They ended up naming him Saul. Mimi didn’t cut Saul’s hair until he was older than three and he had long ringlets. At the time, it looked so unusual to see a little boy with long hair done in ringlets, but in Jewish tradition, foregoing haircuts is said to camouflage and protect the boy babies by making the evil spirits think they were girl babies. Certain practices reveal the sexist histories of the past, and I wouldn’t want to perpetuate the implied lower value of girl babies in this custom.

In looking at the threads of connection that weave between the ancestors and me, I suppose I am less concerned by what the superstition itself is, and more by asking what kind of reality does the enactment of a superstition construct? When I was 27, I lived in Jerusalem on the campus of Hebrew University, home to students from all over the world, and certainly a large Jewish population. I found myself comforted when a stranger called out Shabbat Shalom, good Shabbos. I lived so long in primarily Christian places that my reaction to the presence of familiar Jewish phrases and customs proved a wonderfully visceral experience. Strangers wished me a happy new year, Shana Tovah, in September and I felt at home. These were well wishes that I usually just spoke to my family, yet here they connected me to a place across the ocean from where I was raised. I learned new boundaries between the intimate and personal and the public and communal. I learned how my cultural and philosophical identity and literal being in the world are deeply rooted into the community and the ground I walk upon.

The actions that we develop into habits or superstitions intimately manipulate our perception of our reality and existence. My mother says, Anything that makes sense, I’d say is a good tradition to keep. It’s special to know what happened as it gives some information about our origins and it’s how we keep our ancestors close. These routines restore our sense of safety and return us to a familiar homeland. This is the homeland we can find no matter where we are on the planet, and in this homeland we are always together with our loved ones and our ancestors.

How does one make space for the sensibilities gained from an experience of war, violence, and loss? What does a space for this look like? For families in diaspora communities these sensibilities may be kept in a very physical way, within customs and superstition. Such superstitious actions may serve as an invaluable site of memory, sustained in a nonrational and nonscientific way. The site of memory appears in the silences held between grandmas, in knowing eye-contact made across a room. The obscurity of this non-linguistic site of memory is digested through osmosis by a child hiding under the legs of a table, listening.

Quotes throughout by Victoria Wills from a conversation with the author, her daughter, October 16, 2019.
1. Harman Akenson and Amitava Chowdhury, “Conclusion: Diaspora as Global History,” In Between Dispersion and Belonging: Global Approaches to Diaspora in Practice (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2016), p. 254.

2. Leah Rachel Yoffie, “Popular Beliefs and Customs among the Yiddish-Speaking Jews of St. Louis, Mo.,” The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 38, no. 149, 1925, pp. 394–95.

3. Anson Laytner, “Jews, God and Theodicy,” in Religious Identity and Renewal in the Twenty-First Century: Jewish, Christian and Muslim Explorations, Simone Sinn and Michael Reid, eds. (Trice: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 2015). pp. 37–54.

Ariel Wills is a visual storyteller, multidisciplinary artist, and author.