Magic: the art of invoking supernatural powers to change the course of nature.
You may not believe in the destructive power of horrid little demons, and have not the slightest fear of spirits. But I’ll bet anything you have knocked on wood dozens of times and muttered “tfut tfut” or some other local equivalent to ward off the Evil Eye.
People have been trying to protect themselves from the forces of evil for millennia. We learned all about it on a tour in Jerusalem whose intriguing title — Amulets, Potions and the Evil Eye” — said it all.
Our guide, Esther Sa’ad, suggested we learn something about demons before beginning our adventure. Miserable, vengeful beings, demons are people that are in the process of creation just as the Sabbath begins. Work, of course, must come to a screeching halt, and as a result only their top halves are finished. Demons are half human – and half rooster.
Besides demons, there are spirits floating around that can harm us as well. They belong to people who have died, but whose souls haven’t yet passed into the next world – either because they haven’t finished a task they were meant to carry out, or for an extra opportunity to get revenge.
Our first point of interest on this strange tour was a large eyesore which has been around for decades. Called the Clal Center, and located along Jaffa Road, the building features strange screens on the exterior walls to protect passersby from stones that used to magically fly off the building (or maybe it was to stop people jumping off after a visit to the tax department offices located inside). And why is the Clal Center so cursed? Because the bones of a Jerusalem mafiosi lie beneath the foundations.
Moving up Jaffa Road towards the Mahane Yehuda Market, we stopped across from the House of the Dead Groom. Today the stunning edifice serves as the Jerusalem District Health Office but many years ago it belonged to a Christian Arab family. On his wedding day the groom suddenly dropped dead. His parents, who had been thrilled with the match, propped him up and the wedding took place as planned. Afterwards, however, the house was considered haunted and remained empty for decades.
That may be the reason that when the large, elegant Etz Haim Jewish religious school was built across the street, rabbis feared that the land on which it stood might be cursed. Rumor has it that before the official opening, as a measure of protection, the students were told to read Psalms 24 hours a day for three days.
Yeshivat Hashalom nearby is run by Rabbi David Bazri, a mekubal (someone who deals in Jewish mysticism), and a household name to happily married couples who met after the mass prayer service he conducts twice a year. Hundreds of singles attend each time, hoping that soon afterwards they will find their true soul mates.
As I understand it, the idea is to reach the Almighty through fervently read specially prepared prayers. We have heard that people also come to Rabbi Bazri for help in releasing a dybbuk – a soul stuck in a netherworld that has entered their bodies.
One of Jerusalem’s tiny courtyard neighborhoods, Herodna Houses, is decorated with bright blue window bars and doors and on its walls are the remains of blue paint. There is a perfectly good explanation for so much blue. It seems that Satan is constantly trying to reach earth, and when he gets here and sees all the blue, he thinks he made a wrong turn and ended up in Heaven. So he then immediately turns around.
Residents also have another excellent system of keeping away the Evil Eye: they hang garlic bulbs outside of windows.
On a wall further down the street, a sign offered pigeons for sale. Did you know that if you have hepatitis, placing a pigeon on your belly button will cure you? It dies during the process, but doesn’t seem to suffer. If you’re interested, there is a number to call and, when you do, tell the person on the other side of the receiver which color pigeon you need (you have a choice of four).
We were led across the street and inside the Mahane Yehuda Market to an area known as the Iraqi Market. Here, old timers who once sold produce nearby drink arak, play backgammon, and gossip. A line had formed at a very popular stand selling magic potions – excuse me, drinks – that claim to cure just about anything. A few bicyclers we saw weren’t satisfied with the drinks, and had the owner spray them with his special mist.
Aside from a plethora of blue doors, windows and gates, all kinds of lucky charms can be seen in the 19th-century market neighborhood of Zichron Tuvia. They range from sideways horseshoes (if the openings are on top or on the bottom your luck will run out) to the decorative hamsot seen everywhere in Israel.
Hamsot are open hand-shaped amulets whose supernatural powers are believed to offer protection against demons, the Evil Eye, and a variety of catastrophes. Originating in Arab lands, the hamsa symbolizes the hand of Fatim, Muhammed’s daughter, and represents the five commandments of Islam. Jews adopted the Hamsa centuries ago, and it can be found on Jewish ritual articles like Torah ark curtains and Hanukkah lamps from all over the Middle East.
You may not need a hamsa if all you want to do is to scare off a demon, for they are afraid of loud noises. Some believe that this may be one of the rationales for stomping on a glass at weddings – the noise will keep demons away. But if you ever run into one in person, you should break out in an earsplitting cock-a-doodle doo.
Sitting in the shade of a park in the adjacent Ohel Moshe neighborhood, our guide told us about one particularly pervasive and destructive demon. Her name is Lilith and, according to ancient tradition, she was Adam’s first wife.
The first Mrs. Adam was a strong-minded feminist who had very definite ideas about her position in the marital bed. After several violent arguments with her male chauvinist husband, Lilith ran away from home. Angels were unable to return her to Eden, and since she would now never have the pleasure of motherhood, she didn’t want any other women to enjoy their babies.
Unfortunately, now a combination of demon, goddess and angry spirit, Lilith has been doing her best to take revenge ever since. Traveling all over the world in search of adorable newborns, she snatches them from their parents and then strangles them. That’s why for thousands of years women giving birth have tried all kinds of charms and spells to keep her away. After the baby is born, for instance, they might hang amulets over the cradle for protection, often depicting Mrs. Adam in chains or in handcuffs.
Even today, people may pretend the child is too ugly for Lilith to notice. One of our group confirmed that this ruse is still being used, noting that after her second child was born, her mother-in-law barely looked at the baby before declaring that he was even uglier than her first.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.