Magical Thinking: Superstitions and Other Persistent Notions

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Magical Thinking: Superstitions and Other Persistent Notions

May 24 – December 15, 2022
Dr. Bernard Heller Museum, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, New York

Jean Bloch Rosensaft, Director
Dr. Laura Kruger, Curator Emerita
Phyllis Freedman, Co-Curator, Exhibitions
Nancy Mantell, Ph.D., Co-Curator, Travelling Exhibitions
Susan Rosenstein, Registrar and Archivist
Rose Starr, Ph.D., Research Director
Susan Picker, Ph.D., Curatoratorial Assistant
Eleanor Berman, Museum Communications, Catalogue Design
Ian Mankes and Thelonious Fiorito, Exhibition Installation

“One should not believe in superstitions,
but still it is best to be heedful of them…”
— Sefer Hasidim (Book of the Pious), 13th century, Germany


Dr. Laura Kruger, Curator Emerita, Dr. Bernard Heller Museum

When do people resort to the seemingly “magical” power
of words and amulets in order to direct or control the
outcome of their lives? The simple answer is “always.” We
humans are born with an innate desire to achieve our “best”
destinies. We privately barter with our own selves, silently
converse and format exchanges of behavior resulting in reward.
We mutter silent promises in trade for achieving a desired
result, resort to “power” actions such as swearing, of wishing
harm to the person barring our success, or trading a favor for
the desired result. We embrace imaginary sources of assistance,
such as wearing a “good luck” talisman or a “success” scarf.
Perhaps these familiar charms and patterns of activity assuage
our anxieties and bring reassurance that emboldens our actions.
Swearing or cursing is akin to taking an oath. These are bold
words to stiffen the spine, a forecast of reprisals if the compact is
not fulfilled. The words curse and blessing are, in Hebrew, direct
opposites. A curse is a wish of evil against another. The title of
this essay, “Pooh, Pooh, Pooh,” harks back to a time when it was
thought propitious to actually “spit” out the inherent evil.
Superstitions and folkloric belief differ from culture to culture,
from era to era, and from one locale to the next. Based on
geography, climate, demography, ritual observance, and perceived
“success,” folk wisdom marches on. I guess it still works.


Rabbi Wendy Zierler, Ph.D., M.A., M.F.A. Sigmund Falk Professor of Modern Jewish Literature and Feminist Studies

S ince its first appearance in Jewish literature, the dybbuk
has played a paradoxically mixed role: part-magical, part
moralistic, at once a remnant of old world superstition and a
harbinger of social change.
The first dybbuk tale appeared in the Mayse-Book (1602). The
story tells of a young man who is possessed by an evil spirit and
the efforts of the rabbis to exorcise this spirit from him. In the
process, the dybbuk not only confesses his own wrongdoings, but
identifies the social ills of his community (including the suffering
of agunot, chained wives whose husbands disappear without
granting their wives ritual divorces). He also identifies a number
of sinners in the room among those purporting to be righteous. As
Joachim Neugroschel notes, the story “points out the ambiguous
power of the possessed sinner to recognize evil in others, so that
the dybbuk has the paradoxical function of rectifying evil,”1
as he is seen as the embodiment thereof.
The durability and versatility of the dybbuk motif in modern
Jewish literature, a corpus that one might expect to eschew this
kind of irrational fare, inheres in its capacity to serve as a cultural
tool of social change, even as it hearkens back to pre-modern
notions of gilgul neshamot – a wandering soul goes from creature
to creature and then possesses a living human being.
The most famous dybbuk story comes from playwright and
folklorist S. Ansky (Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, 1863-1920), whose
play, The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds (1914) tells the love story
of Khonon and Leah. After his death from kabbalistic asceticism,
the spirit of Khonon comes back from the grave to possess Leah on her wedding day and prevent her from marrying another
man. Ansky’s play may depict a pre-modern world of devotion and superstition, but it also offers distinctly modern critique about
class disparity, the practice of arranged marriage, and the limitations placed on female autonomy. As Jeremy Dauber notes,
Khonon enters the world of mystical experimentation in the first place because Leah’s father is unwilling to marry her to
a poor student. There is the juxtaposition of tradition and modernity: The play frowns on the traditional idea of arranged
marriages, suggesting that sacred unions are instead a product of romantic love. Finally, there is the world of men versus
the world of women: Leah becomes Khonon-Leah, vacillating uneasily, occupying neither world fully.”2
The two themes addressed by Dauber above – the freedom to choose one’s mate and changing sexual norms – all get taken up
in modern Jewish variations on the dybbuk story. Tony Kushner’s 1997 adaptation of Ansky’s play adds a homosexual subtext
to the plot: Khonon’s and Leah’s fathers, who knew and loved each other in their Yeshiva days, plan to marry off their children
1 Joachim Neugroschel, translator and editor, Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult, (Woodstock: The Overlook Press, 1987), p. 702
2 Jeremy Dauber, “Demons, Golems and Dybbuks,” Nextbook and the American Library Association, p. 5.
Leonard Everett Fisher
Dybbuk, 2005
Acrylic polymer emulsion, 11″ x 17″
Illustrations from the Dybbuk by Barbara Rogasky, Holiday House, 2005
to one another as a means of consummating their love in the only
acceptable way they could. In The Dybbuk, and the search for justice
that it depicts, Kushner thus identifies not just a critique of arranged
marriage, but of heteronormativity.
Lesbian writer Judith Katz thus adapts the dybbuk motif to address
the disruptions of traditional sexual norms. In Katz’s Running
Fiercely Toward a Thin Sound (1992), the dybbuk possession is
part-figurative / part-physical, a way of representing the lesbian
protagonist Nadine’s inability to fit into her conventional Jewish
family. In the dramatic opening to the novel, furious and miserable
Nadine sets fire to her hair, leaving her with a harsh voice that her
mother identifies as that of a dybbuk.
Other modern Jewish fiction writers have used the idea of the
dybbuk – a spirit that takes over one’s voice – as a way of critiquing
political radicalism, or of representing the power of art and
In I.B. Singer’s Satan in Goray (1935) the depiction of Sabbatean
fanaticism in 17th-century Goray, which culminates in the tragic
dybbuk possession and death of female protagonist Rechele,
becomes a means of critiquing the false neo-messianic ideologies
of Singer’s day, especially communism.
In Sid Fleischman’s winning children’s novel, The Entertainer and the Dybbuk (2007), the spirit of a Holocaust victim possesses
a ventriloquist and becomes a means of bringing a Nazi war criminal to justice.
And in Francine Prose’s Hungry Hearts, Dinah Rappaport, a Yiddish actress playing the role of Leah in Ansky’s The Dybbuk
in a traveling production of the play in South America, becomes possessed herself with the spirit of the dead husband of an
Argentinian dancer. This humorous dybbuk within a dybbuk story becomes an occasion to consider the role of the writer,
actor, or artist in receiving and representing the memories and experiences of others. R. Israel (a riff on Ansky’s R. Asriel),
the South American rabbi enlisted to perform the exorcism, offers a modern theory of dybbuk possession by comparing it
to the workings of a radio:
“And as for human radios” – Rabbi Israel was playing to us now – “artists must be among the most finely tuned of all. So
what’s so incredible about this young lady picking up a little static?”
Of course, what Dinah picks up is the very opposite of static – that is, the empathetic capacity of art to take over our hearts
and minds, to move us forward, and help us envision other, better ways of being.


Bubba Meises, 2019 (image on page 1)

Amerling recalls several superstitions about childbirth that she learned from her parents.
They are all attempts to prevent anything untoward happening to the baby



Ink on paper, 26.5″ x 21″
Dr. Bernard Heller Museum Collection

Shiviti, the first word in Psalms 16:8, means “I have set,”
or “I am ever mindful.” The complete verse states, “I have
set the Lord always before me.” The main elements of
most shiviti are this line and the 67th Psalm, written in the
form of a mezuzah. The shiviti is a protective amulet and
reminder of the presence of God.


Rachel and the Mandrake, 1990
Oil and oil sticks on canvas, 40″ x 48″

In Genesis 30:14 it is written, “Once, at the
time of the wheat harvest, Reuben came
upon some mandrakes in the field and
brought them to his mother Leah.” There
was a superstition, based on the appearance
of the mandrake, that eating them would
make a woman fertile.


The Golem, 2020
Diptych; oil, mixed media on canvas,
24″ x 60″

The Golem, an alchemical clay
creature brought to life, can be both
a savior or destructive force. This
work has four images: the upper right
column’s golem and the white raven,
expressing the principles of life, and
the left column’s golem and black
raven, expressing the principles of
death. The Hebrew letters painted on
each image express their essence as
do their coloration.


Hamsa, 2011
Embroidery, 11″ x 9″

Braun’s design features two classic Jewish symbols:
the hamsa, signifying God’s blessings and protection,
and pomegranates, representing the 631 mitzvot.


Stonehenge with a Rook, 2019
Photograph, 30″ x 24″

A superstition holds that if the six ravens or rooks
guarding the Tower of London are lost or fly away,
the Tower will fall and Britain with it. Rooks are also
thought to be the guardians of Stonehenge.


Left Hand Jenny, 2020
Photograph, 22″ x 22.5″

For thousands of years, left-handedness
(derived from the Latin “sinister” for “left”)
has been associated with evil. In this work,
the artist, herself left-handed, celebrates
left-handedness. In the minyan of gloves,
one is left-handed, approximating the ten
percent of the population that is so blessed.
The border of the work includes 24 cent
1918 Jenny stamps, one of which, in the
upper right corner, is the highly valuable
inverted Jenny.

DOE projekts

Wishing (You) Well, 2020
Mixed media, 14″ x 14″

The ancient Etruscans believed that birds were
oracles. When they slaughtered a chicken, they left
the furcula, or wishbone, in the sun to dry. They
would stroke it while making a wish – thus its
common name, wishbone. In America, wishbones
may be broken apart by two people. The one who
ends up with the longer side is predicted to be the
one who has better luck.


Black Cats, 2019
Fine art print, 19″ x 13″

Many cultures have superstitions about black cats, ascribing to them either good or bad luck. Historically, in much of
Europe, black cats were associated with witchcraft and evil, while they were associated with good luck in most of Britain
and in Japan. In Hebrew and Babylonian folklore, cats are in the same category as serpents.


Angel Blessing Bowl, 2019
Pit-fired ceramic, 5″ x 5″ x 5″

In the Torah, duhan refers to the
platform on which priestly blessings were
given. Adapting art to the meaning of her
name, Felix creates blessing bowls. This
bowl, for childbirth, includes the names
of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Raphael,
and Uriel on the sides and the Shekinah
(divine feminine presence) overhead.


Dybbuk, 2005
Title page, acrylic polymer emulsion, 17″ x 11″
Illustrations from The Dybbuk by Barbara Rogasky, Holiday House, 2005

The Dybbuk tells the story of the
daughter of a wealthy man who
falls in love with an orphaned
scholar. The girl’s father promises
her to another man. When the
scholar hears this news, he dies
of a broken heart but his ghost or
dybbuk possesses the bride’s body
on her wedding day. The title page
illustration shows the dybbuk
floating over the shtetl.


Fire, 1989
Pastels on cutout canvas, 75″ x 34″

The power of fire is incorporated into many legends and rituals in Judaism,
both as a destroyer and as a giver of protection and warmth. Sodom and
Gomorra are destroyed by fire, but candlelight bookends the Shabbat. This
work shows the silhouette of a wizard/monk overlaid with the image of a
young boy blowing on flames ignited by a magic wand.


The Evil Eye, 2017
Photo collage, 21″ X 25″

In Yiddish, the phrase kein ayin hara means
“no Evil Eye.” The phrase originates from
the superstition that talking about one’s
good fortune attracts the Evil Eye. In this
collage, the Evil Eye is predominantly abstract
in form, except for the human eye in the center
of the piece, looking through the flames of


Thank You, Grandma, 1998
Textiles, 19″ x 11.5″ x 4.5″

The text expresses gratitude to the artist’s grandmother
who courageously immigrated to America. The
installation focuses on the red ribbons that the
grandmother tied on Hamoy to protect her from evil.


Kaparot: Swing for Life, 2019
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 24″

Kaparot, or atonement, is a ceremony performed
before Yom Kippur as a symbolic transfer of one’s
sins to a rooster that is then killed and donated to
the poor. Today, money in a bag is substituted for
the rooster and the money is given to the poor.
Kaparot is based on the ceremony of the scapegoat
as described in Leviticus 16:21-22.


The Slap, 2020
Textile, 22.5″ x 21″

The reasons for superstitions about the
“menstrual slap” are unclear. Some traditions
say that it is to bring a quick rush of blood
to the face, pulling it away from the lower
abdomen and relieving discomfort. Others see
it as a wake-up call marking the transition from
girlhood to womanhood


The Intercession, 2020
Mixed media on canvas, 4′ x 3′

This painting recalls the unsuccessful curse of the seer
Balaam against the Israelites. Balak, the king of Moab,
offered Balaam a great reward if he would curse the
Israelites so they could be driven away from Moab.
When Balaam rides his she-ass to deliver the curse to
the Israelites, God stations an angel to block his journey.
The ass can see the angel and turns away, but Balaam
cannot. He finally realizes that his donkey was obeying
God and he was not.


The Lavabo in Pisa, c. 2000-2005
Oil on canvas, 40″x 30″

This lavabo is for ritual hand washing at the Cimitario
Hebraica in Pisa, Italy. Funereal superstitions are based
on concerns that death or evil spirits may follow one home
without certain procedures, such as hand-washing when
leaving the cemetery or before entering the home.


Getot, 2019
Acrylic on wood, 32″ x 24″ x 2″

This image of abstract forms bears witness to
the illusions in the world. It expresses the close
connections between body and landscape and
engages those who see it with the possibilities
of memory.


Acrylic on canvas, 12″ x 15″

Superstitions about mirrors are found in
many cultures. In Judaism, it is customary
to cover the mirrors in the house of the
deceased during shiva (the seven-day
mourning period). Historically, it was
thought that the soul might become
trapped in the mirror and not be able
to move on to the afterlife.


Warding, 2017
Triptych; dye sublimation on metal, 8″ x 13.5″

Jewish superstition includes beliefs that metals and colors have special properties. In this work, photographs are applied
to aluminum to reflect the belief that metal is protective and wards off evil. The colors included are white, for spiritual
purity; red, for blood or life; purple, for purification; and blue, where the divine (purple) meets the earth (red).


Sticks and Stones, 2002
Stencil, spray paint, pencil, gouache on paper,
18″ x 7″

Kuper’s wordless graphic novel tells of a rock
man, born of a volcano – a magic birth – who,
in his hubris, subjugates his neighbors until
they overthrow his rule.


Consequences, 2020
Pen and ink, giclée print, 26″ x 20″

There is a widespread superstition among American
Jews that a tattoo bars one from being buried in a Jewish
cemetery. Although the Torah forbids us from tattooing
our bodies (Leviticus 19:28), one who has a tattoo can
still be buried in a Jewish cemetery


Black Cat, 2019
Watercolor, 14″ x 11″

The black cat has been the source of more
superstitions than any other animal. In some cultures
feared, in others adored, the black cat has walked on
thin ice throughout history. Even now, some people
think that evil spirits are hidden in black cats. That
could easily be believed of the hissing, angry cat in
this painting.


Dybbuk Floating Over Goray, c. 1981 (image on page 3)
Watercolor and ink on paper, 9″ x 7″

Dr. Bernard Heller Museum Collection

Satan in Goray by Isaac Bashevis Singer was first published in Yiddish in 1935. It is a story of how false Messianism
swept through medieval Poland and its impacts on the Jews of Goray. This watercolor is a sketch for a special edition
of the book published in 1981 with illustrations by Moskowitz.


Jewish Magic, 2012 (image on front cover)
Acrylic and colored pencil on paper, 19″ x 15″

This work contains various literary images about magic in the Torah, in synagogues, and in amulets. We see the signs
of the Zodiac and the Lion of Judah, symbol of strength and authority, wearing a crown. There are also yads, the
letters of the alphabet on a hamsa, and most beautifully, Jerusalem rising from a rose.


The White Mouse, 2018
Oil on wood, 31.5″ x 21.6″

Pretzer is inspired by Renaissance paintings but creates
portraits with a surreal aura. In a community in which
learning is an honored pursuit and a retentive memory
a prized attribute, there are many superstitions about
scholarship. Included in a Talmudic list of actions that
induce forgetfulness and poor memorization is eating
food nibbled by a mouse.



The Sicilian Cards, 1991
Acrylic, ink, and pressed letters on paper, 9.5″ x 7.5″ each

Winning at cards is a matter of luck. Rand’s forty Sicilian
cards are his take on ancient playing cards found in Sicily.
The Sicilian card deck has forty cards divided into four
suits, each of which has seven number cards for the days
of Creation, and three “royal” cards. Each of the four suits
carries the imprint of the four plagues. The number forty
on each card refers to the Noahic flood.


From Israel With Love: Acts of Kindness
& Generosity Toward Disabled Children
Around the World, 2019
Papercut, 22″ x 26″

In bygone eras, infirmities were perceived
to be the result of curses. Today, we reject
such an interpretation and apply Judaism’s
highest values of righteousness – hesed – to
support and include individuals with special
needs in our communities. The Israeli project,
“Wheelchairs of Hope,” exemplifies these
values by alleviating immobility for thousands
of disabled children in developing countries.


Hamsa, c. 2018
Mixed media, 10″ x 8″

Dr. Bernard Heller Museum Collection

Satin creates alternative visions to conventions for
new and imaginative aesthetic forms. This wall-hung
hamsa supports her vision.


Book of Hosea, 2017
Papercut; calligraphy, ink gouache, gold and copper leaf,
24.5″ x 19.5″

Through Hosea, God commands the people to discard
their idols and understand that there is only one God.
To restore God’s protection to Israel and fertility to the
land requires curbing evil behaviour and discarding idols.


Against the Evil Eye, 1974/2004
Bronze and glass, 3.5″ x 5.1″ x 3.9″ cm

Many observant Jews avoid talking about valuable
items they own, good luck that has befallen them,
and, especially, their greatest treasures – their
children. If these are mentioned, one can say,
b’li ayin hara, meaning “without an evil eye”
or in Yiddish, kein ayin hara.


Rosh Hashanah Hamsa, 1993
Archival inkjet print, collage, 18.25″ x 13.25″

This rendering of a hamsa combines its defense against
trouble with symbols of the New Year, including the
shofar for the call to worship and the honeycomb
brimming with honey for the hoped-for sweetness of
the New Year.


AmuLetters, 2018
Colored pencil on paper, 20.7″ x 28.5″

Amulets and talismans are magic charms
that are worn to ensure spiritual power
or to ward off evil. This colorful drawing
highlights the letter shin, the first letter of
one of the most powerful names of God,
and the word chai or life.


Joseph and Koza or the Sacrifice to the Vistula,
Pencil on paper, 12″ x 9.5″

Dr. Bernard Heller Museum Collection

Shimin’s illustrations dramatically capture Isaac
Bashevis Singer’s retelling of this tale of superstition
and sacrifice. In the story, Joseph, a wandering Jew who
preached to the Poles about the one God more powerful
than all the Polish gods, had to prove God’s power by
saving Koza, the chieftain’s only daughter, from being
sacrificed to the River Vistula.


Rage of the Golem, 2019
Acrylic on canvas, 24″ x 24″

In Hebrew folklore a golem is an artificial
being endowed with life. In this work
the golem represents all Jews whose rage
is a reaction to the current increase in


Red String, 2020
Hemp wool, silk, 12’ x 9″

This sculpture includes three types of red string worn as
a talisman to ward off misfortune: natural hemp sprayed
red with the hemp still showing, white cord encased in
red silk with the white still visible, and dyed red wool.
They represent, respectively, people who doubt the power
of the string, people who are not certain, and people who
feel deeply about the magic of the string.


Untitled, 1967
Lithograph, 16″ x 20″

Gift of Sigmund Balka
Dr. Bernard Heller Museum Collection

This masterful graphic work includes
symbols of the United States and ancient
Egypt: the all-seeing eye, pyramid, eagle,
a profile of “Uncle Sam,” an Indian chief
riding a horse, and the Sphinx, all under
a foreboding sky. The first three mythic
symbols can be found on the back of the
U.S. one-dollar bill.


Amulet #5, 2003
Textile, 6″ x 6″

Amulets are believed to have the power to ward off
negative energy, evil spirits, and even illness.


Evil Eyes, 2019
Oil on canvas, 22″ x 22″

Temkin’s amulets in orange, a color believed to
promote creativity and happiness, are depicted as
fruit on the Tree of Life.


Amulet – In Praise of Lilith, 2020
Papercut, acrylic paint, 22″ x 30″

In 19th-century Eastern Europe and the Middle East, papercut
amulets were believed to protect a mother and her newborn
from Lilith, who might snatch the infant. Ugoretz’s 21st-century
papercuts are concerned with today’s demons: climate change and
pollution. She also celebrates the spirit and accomplishments of
contemporary women artists and activists. In this amulet the artist
includes the name Ruth Bader Ginsburg in Hebrew, calling on her
to protect us from anti-democratic actions.


Horseshoe, 2011
Acrylic on canvas, 8″ x 10″

When kept as a talisman, a horseshoe is said to bring
good luck or repel bad luck. Horseshoes are considered
lucky when turned upwards but unlucky when turned
downwards, as it is believed that the luck will “fall out.”
Vinokur’s colorful painting is the result of his happy
childhood memories of circus horses.


Fantasia, 50th Anniversary German Rerelease, 1990
Poster, 33″ x 23.375″

Collection of Ken Sutak

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice section of Disney’s movie Fantasia,
which was released in 1940, is based on Goethe’s poem Der
Zauberlehrling. In it an old magician leaves his workshop,
entrusting his apprentice with chores to perform. The
apprentice, played by Mickey Mouse, charms a broom to do
the work for him, using magic he cannot control. A similar
theme of magic turning against its user can be seen in the
stories of golems and Frankenstein.


Kaporot: Hassid, 2015
Wtercolor on paper, 20″ x 16″

The Kaporot atonement ritual takes place on
the eve of Yom Kippur. It consists of waving
a live chicken above one’s head while reciting
specific verses in the Mahzor transfering one’s
sins to the chicken. In this work, the artist
depicts a man holding a chicken before the
ritual begins.


Solomon Ibn Gabirol’s Female Golem, 2019
Linoleum block print on rice paper, 24″ x 18″

In Jewish folklore, a golem is an image endowed with life. During
the Middle Ages, many legends arose of wise men who created
such creatures. Usually, the golem was a perfect servant. One
source credits an 11th-century rabbi, Solomon ibn Gabirol, with
creating a female golem to perform household chores.


Coral Protects, 2019
Oil on canvas, 58.5″ x 34.5″

Coral is said to be a powerful protector against both
sorcery and the Evil Eye. It is thought to keep women
sane, healthy, modest, and fertile.


Woman with Red Thread, Jerusalem, 2014
Archival giclée print from digital camera, 20″ x 16″

Wearing a red thread is one of many Jewish folk customs intended to
“ward off the Evil Eye.” At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, one often
sees elderly people sitting at the steps that descend to the Wall handing
a thin red string to the passersby who give them charity.