Our rituals are illogical, but we perform them faithfully, anyway
On Shabbat mornings, when I go outside to pick up the newspaper from the front stoop of my house, I am aware of a deep sense of responsibility. I know that where and how I open the paper to check the scores during the baseball season determines whether my beloved Baltimore Orioles won or lost the previous night’s game.
I know, I know. Some might think it illogical—after all, the game has been over for hours and the players are home, asleep, no longer on the field. But over the years I’ve learned that if I check the scores before I bring the paper into the house, they lose/lost. If I can hold off until I’m inside, they win/won.
OK, so it’s not 100 percent foolproof; there are exceptions to every rule. But my job in all this is to do my little part to increase the O’s chances. And trust me, I’m not alone in my behavior, which some may call pure mishegas (craziness).
Managers and ballplayers are known to have a wide range of superstitions. Some are evident to the fans, like players who avoid stepping on the foul lines when trotting on or off the field—or those who, davka, have to step on the lines. And virtually every batter goes through a series of formulaic motions between each pitch, from crossing themselves to cupping their crotch, while pitchers fiddle with the ball—and everyone on the field and in the dugout perfects the art of spitting—adding to the time, and charm, of the game.
Then there are the players who won’t change their underwear during a winning streak, no doubt giving the locker room an additional whiff of victory.
Some of the smartest, most thoughtful people I know are deeply irrational when it comes to sports, believing that their actions have a direct impact on their team’s on-field fortunes.
Truth be told, back in 1979, when I lived in Baltimore and sat in the press box with my law professor friend Kenny at the old Memorial Stadium for the World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, we were convinced that when and how we took bites from our brisket sandwiches during those home games were key to the O’s fate.
Sadly, we must have chewed when we should have swallowed because the Orioles blew a 3-1 Series lead, losing the last three games to the Pirates, including two at home. Willie Stargell may have won the MVP, but 35 years later I still feel guilty about my role in The Big Fade.
It should be noted, though, that I am following centuries of Jewish tradition in believing that a ritual act I perform, or avoid, leads to good luck, or bad. And it’s a thin line between minhag (custom) and plain old bubbe meises (old wives’ tales) in any number of Jewish traditions, many of them involving warding off the Evil Eye, especially in regards to children.
For example, some parents still tie a red ribbon (or bendl, in Yiddish) around a child’s finger to ward off the Evil Eye. We add a Hebrew name like Alte (Yiddish for old) to a sick child to “fool” the Devil from recognizing and claiming him or her. Pregnant women are told to avoid visiting the cemetery. We don’t say “mazal tov” on hearing that a woman is pregnant, and we don’t make public a baby’s name before the birth. Bad luck.
Spending a good deal of time in my European-bred grandparents’ home as a youngster, I also was told that whistling is taboo (it invokes Satan), stepping over a child on the floor is a no-no (she won’t grow unless you step back over her), opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck, and on hearing bad news one should spit three times to ward off the ever-lurking Evil Eye, with the suggested additional option of uttering “poo, poo, poo.”
Sounds reasonable, right?
Many people are familiar with the phrase “ken ayin hora” (may there be no Evil Eye), sometimes shortened to “kenna hora,” invoked when saying words of praise, for example, “oh, that baby is adorable.”
Why tempt fate?
One of the more charming customs we have is shaliach mitzvah gelt, giving money to someone going on a major trip, asking him to use it for charity on arrival. This is based on the belief that no one will come to harm on a charitable mission.
In the end, some people believe in faith healers, others insist in the power of a rebbe; I’m semi-convinced my actions can transmit some kind of positive energy to a group of favored ballplayers.
All of which is to say that whether you call them superstitions, customs, traditions or bubbe meises, they offer a certain comfort for those who observe them. And if you don’t believe me, I won’t even bother telling you how uncrossing my legs at a critical moment while listening to the Oriole game the other night resulted in light-hitting catcher Steve Clevenger’s game-winning double in the bottom of the 10th.
Mock me if you will, but it worked, didn’t it?
And remember this: If I keep at it throughout the season, the O’s could wind up in the World Series.
Poo poo poo.
Gary Rosenblatt has been the editor and publisher of The Jewish Week for 20 years and has written more than 1,000 “Between The Lines” columns since 1993. Now a collection of 80 of those columns, ranging from Mideast analysis to childhood remembrances as “the Jewish rabbi’s son” in Annapolis, Md., is available.