Keinahora. Grandma said it all the time, so much so that I thought it was a nickname for Jackie and me, like Piscatrunie, which was her nickname for us – wasn’t it?
Our ever-worrying Grandma Ruth was the person who said, “I’m cold; put a sweater on.” She’s the person we’d avoid speaking with on our daily after-five-pm calls if we had a sniffle, the one who’d call if there was a storm or danger anywhere in the state of Pennsylvania when we were definitively in college in Philadelphia. And she was the only one we ever saw on Gerard Avenue behind Yankee Stadium hanging halfway out the (5th-floor) window waving as her family drove away.
Grandma saying keinahora (and hanging out the window) was about protecting us, her beautiful grandchildren, saying, “evil eye, stay away!” The Yiddish word had its material counterpart in her hand crafted dining room chairs with which she walled my sister and me into our beds when we slept over at 831, Grandma and Grandpa’s apartment, lest we roll out and hit the floor two feet below. Yes, for years after we were at toddler-risk of falling out of bed.
We made fun of Grandma Ruth, ‘cos it was just too easy to tease Worry Bird as we called her. Her superstitions abounded. Red threads were tied on our cribs. She wouldn’t have green in her elegant furnishings. You couldn’t cut a thread off a garment you were wearing. That time I gave a challah knife as a wedding gift – there needed to be a coin involved so as not to cut a friendship. And, years after she died, Dad dismissed the tradition of putting stones on a tombstone as connected to Grandma’s superstitions!
I’ve wrestled with her superstitiousness over the years, and cite Grandma when I explain that there are many reasons folks do or don’t do things amidst life and Judaism, some of them being superstitions. In the end, though, I tell others in the context of my rabbinic work that they can name babies after the living without danger, and that one of the reasons Jews put stones on the tombstone when they visit graves is superstition. For sure, I tell them that they can speak of impending death and make initial funeral arrangements when someone they love is gravely ill – that their words and actions won’t harm anyone.
But then, I might just happen to be heard saying keinahora. Even more, I do those keinahora action equivalents, like wearing Mom’s high school pearl heart necklace as protective gear daily for months, maybe years now – after the dreidel-I’m-praying-for-a-miracle necklace she gave me years ago went MIA. Each time I say bye – I love you- I’ll call you when I get home, just like any other visit since I moved to Chicago in 1995 – ‘cos I can’t change it up – what if doing so has a negative impact? And the other day when I noted Mickey and Minnie from our Disney World trip eight years ago on the window sill, I recalled how those little rubber figures delighted you, Mom. For a moment, I wondered where they would live in my kitchen or Jackie’s or where your exquisite dreidel collection would reside, when…and then I stopped. Keinahora – even with possibly incorrect usage, I will send away the evil eye!
Ironically, Mom has always been utterly pragmatic, not in the slightest bit superstitious, the antithesis of her mother-in-law. She sees life through the calm, wise vantage of a kindergarten teacher and would, no doubt, chuckle and perhaps shake her head if she realized my Grandma-Ruth-like actions directed her way, particularly as Grandma had a way of entering our house and moving the furniture without Mom’s permission.
Ironic. Ridiculous. Superstitious. Call it whatever. I don’t care. I’ll do anything to help hold her tight. Grasp the wisdom that emerges in tiny sound bytes with wry smiles – give away the drab shirt, color your hair, watch the oven timer carefully so the brownies don’t burn. The big stuff isn’t spoken these days and, really doesn’t need to be — we live it – unless we are being challenged by teenage grandchildren of Mom’s. Then she reminds us with that kindergarten-teacher look: Do not engage. Speak softly rather than raise your voice in tension and for attention. She can say much in a look – just as she’s always been able to remind a grandchild to chew with their mouth closed with a glance across the table. The loudest guidance is that which she may not say but which is not unsaid — finish your High Holy Day sermons early; don’t drive the kids to school in your pajamas; start with a question when you tell a story; and always count the silver after a dinner party before taking out the trash.
The other night I sat in Mom’s dark bedroom on a folding chair singing Shema and Hashkiveinu – a prayer for nighttime protection. I added the priestly blessing for good measure. I do that a lot lately. I held Mom’s hand, her wedding ring looser than loose, and I longed for my grandmother’s chairs. They sit in my dining room now, and I push them in to the table each night before I turn out the light, just as Mom would do. Those chairs kept me safe. This time folding chairs will need to suffice to surround the bed. Anything to keep Mom from falling. Keinahora.