Second of two parts
Dateline Jerusalem – Here are reflections on a few more bubbe mesises (Jewish grandmother stories).
Sometimes I will tell a story and another person will sneeze. I always say, “you sneezed to the truth.” Sneezing to the truth of a matter is a common Jewish bubbe meise.
There even is a bubbe meise about pulling one’s ears when sneezing to ward off death, accompanied by saying “to long, lucky years.”
One bubbe meise is not to sew a button on or repair a seam or sew anything while the garment is worn by you or someone else. This is to avoid their brains or common sense from being sewn up. Another explanation is that burial shrouds are sewn onto dead bodies.
Therefore, if one must sew a fabric while wearing it, the wearer should chew a thread.
This will prevent the loss of brains and prove that the person chewing the thread is a alive and well, not ready for the grave.
When Jews die, traditionally they are carried out feet first. Therefore, a bubbe meise followed by many is not to situate a bed where your feet face the door.
This is not exclusively a Jewish old wives tale. Avoiding the coffin position is also considered by those who follow Feng Shui.
Another bubbe meise is never giving a gift of a purse or wallet without putting a coin inside so that the purse never will be empty, that there will be wealth.
My grandmother described a variation: She told me of an ancient Jewish custom of bringing sugar and a penny to someone moving into a new home — sugar for sweetness in their life, the penny for wealth in the new home.
Other customs: Bringing salt and a loaf of bread before anything else. Bread is a staple of sustenance. It symbolizes prosperity and sends the message the person never should know hunger.
Salt symbolizes permanence of the new home so it does not lose its flavor, spoil or decay. Salt was believed to ward off evil spirits. Sometimes Jews will bring a broom to someone moving to sweep away troubles.
Obeying My Grandmother
Besides naming children or changing their names and tying red ribbons on their cribs, there are many bubbe meises concerning pregnancy and children.
A pregnant woman never should step over a rope lying on the ground for fear that the umbilical cord may wrap around the baby’s neck.
I followed to the letter a bubbe meise my grandmother taught me:
Do not step over my children if they were lying on the floor unless I walked back over them.
My grandmother believed that if she were to look at something unpleasant — an ugly mole or a large nose — it would cause her unborn child to develop that particular physical trait.
Therefore, when she was pregnant she refused to look directly at her father-in-law who had a large nose. As a result, by the time I came along, I inherited my great-grandmother’s small nose instead of my great-grandfather’s large nose.
My mother, may she rest in peace, unlike me, was not inclined to follow most of my grandmother’s bubbe meises.
However, my mother was adamant about following the Jewish tradition of not buying anything for a baby before it is born and not giving a baby shower until after the birth of the baby. My children think my grandmother’s bubbe meises are illogical old wives tales.
However, they do adhere to one. They will give tzedakah (charity) to someone going on a trip to ensure the traveler’s safety.
This is because the traveler becomes a shaliach mitzvah and donates the money when he/she arrives at the destination.
This Jewish custom is practiced by most people in Israel, religious or not, and by religious Jews throughout the world. My children are not religious, but they make sure that this custom is observed.
Unfortunately, it seems many in my generation have discontinued the tradition of passing these bubbe meises to their children and grandchildren.
It would be a shame to lose these tales since they are a connection to our ancestors.
They bring back wonderful memories. They create a special relationship between grandparent and grandchild.