For the Healthy and For the Dead

In the beginning, there was Shem, walking up the hill towards Shira’s family house. At the bottom of the hill, the city was bristling with the beginnings of its Friday nightlife. She waited to cross the street with a group of young boys, who had been separated from their female counterparts by the pedestrian light.

The light changed. Shem watched the smooth joy of the group reunited. She walked with them for about a block, listened to them laugh and taunt and love in the universal language of youth. Then they turned down the narrow alley that led to the church with the underground dance party, and Shem continued her walk alone.

The circles of inner thigh that bubbled through the tears in her tights scratched against each other as Shem walked up the hill to Shira’s parents house for Friday night dinner. Shem would arrive before sunset, to help prepare for the evening. It was late autumn, and just turning cold. Shem wrapped her jacket a little tighter and continued up the hill, past a babushka selling pomegranates and onions, past the train tracks, and into the old Jewish neighborhood.

Shem followed the directions on her palms to the front door of a modern house, rang the doorbell and waited. One of Shira’s cousins answered. Mila, Shem reckoned. Mila was Shem’s age, down to the day, Shira had said. She had two children—one in her arms and one hiding behind her legs—and one more, clearly, on the way.

For a moment, neither Mila nor Shem spoke. Then Mila stepped aside to make space for Shem to come in. Together they walked through to the living room, where Mila gestured for Shem to sit before she walked away, presumably to find Shira.

After a moment of seated silence, Shem stood again. She looked around at the pictures on the wall. There were photos on the piano of Shira as a child, and parents and grandparents on the wall, alongside prints of famous paintings and images of spiritual ecstasy—dancing at weddings, flying in a cart away from impoverished surroundings, leaving only an ignorant drunk behind.

Shem wandered over to the dining table, where they would gather together in a few hours. It was already set. Knives, forks, and spoons with mother-of-pearl handles rested upon a coral-coloured tablecloth with gold trim. Matching chairs—fifty, to Shem’s count. The longest table she’d ever seen in a home. Not a stain on anything.

Shira entered. She beamed. “You made it. You look nice.” She took Shem’s hand in hers and led her back to the room where she and four of her cousins had been getting ready. The family was known to observe the Sabbath every Friday with the most lavish spread in town. Either you were at the table or you wished you were—at least that was what Shira had said.

Shira’s cousins all looked like her at different ages. Shira at five. Shira at 12. Shira at 23. They stared at Shem, then said hello in English. They would have said hello in English even if Shira hadn’t told them about Shem, because they could tell from one look that she was foreign. Something around the eyes, in the posture.

The young ones played on the floor. The older ones got changed and chatted about school and boys. They would slip into Russian for the best details, but Shira would say “English, please.” and they’d sigh and switch back. Shem was a mixture of embarrassed, resentful, grateful each time.

Shira’s mother and aunts came in to check on the girls. They were running late, and where were the older ones to help. Help with what, Shem wasn’t sure, as the kitchen was occupied by people who were paid to be there.

“You must be Shem,” Shira’s mother noted in perfect English. The surface of her tone was warm, but something deeper felt hostile and concerned. She exchanged a heavy stare with Shira, and then the hostility peeled back. “Are you hungry? You shouldn’t start Shabbat hungry. Are you thirsty? My child has no manners. Luba, just a minute.” She picked up the child at her ankles. “So sorry to hear about your grandfather. He had become so important around here so quickly.”

“Did you know him well?” Shem asked.

“No, but he and my husband were children in the same neighborhood.” Shem could have pushed the conversation forward, but she didn’t want to. Shira’s mother thought for a moment, and then walked out of the room again, the child still in her arms. 

Shira took Shem’s hand and led her back to the living room. She brought a photo album from the shelf to the couch whose cream leather cover matched the mother-of-pearl inlay, and she crashed down, bouncing slightly before patting the spot next to her. Shem slowly, quietly sat. “Your cousins look like replicas of you,” Shem told Shira.

“Yeah, we get that a lot. It’s strange to be in a room with all your pasts and futures. This is from when I was a baby. We’re at the beach, the whole family.”

“That’s sweet.”

“This is my parents when they were kids. My mum’s here. This was about a week before she married my dad. And here, this.” Shira turned the page. “I’m pretty sure this is your grandfather and his family.”

“Why would you have a photo of my family?”

“I don’t know, but he looks like you, right? Maybe we’re cousins.” Shem frowned. “There was a bottleneck, you know? All Ashkenazi Jews are still at most 32nd cousins.”

“That’s disturbing.”

“Right? It’s distant enough that people let it go, but close enough that remembering feels icky.”

Shira’s mum, aunts, and cousins walked in. “Hey Mame,” Shira said, “why do we have a photo of Shem’s family?”

“We do?” Shira handed her mother the photograph. “Oh. Well, during the war, your grandfather held onto a lot of things for a lot of people. He was a politician, well-liked, so he had a little power to do things like that. After the war, no one in that family came back, at least not here, so I guess he just held onto it. There’s probably more of that stuff somewhere if you’d like me to look?”

Shem nodded. “If it’s not too much trouble.”

“Many things are too much trouble. This is not. Come again on Monday, and we can take a look. In the meantime, this is yours.”

The men were to be home soon, and dusk was approaching. It was time to light the candles. Shem remembered the prayer from her childhood, but this tune sounded different. She mumbled her way through. After, the aunts made comments that Shem couldn’t fully grasp. When they chuckled, she knew it was at her.

The men arrived home, Shira’s father heading the pack. As they all sat and stood around the living room, the house that had looked huge a couple of hours ago became cramped and small.

Shem didn’t get a significant seat at the large table, but at least to her left was Shira, who held her hand and rubbed her palm with her thumb. To Shem’s right, the cousin her age, with a child on her knee. They blessed the wine, washed their hands, then blessed the bread. A soup course—a broth with little croutons. Appetizers filling the table—various cured fish. The main. Libations generously poured.

Shem kept her eyes on the cousin. Everything in her seemed golden, her hair and her children and her dress, her sleeves hemmed in red. Shem’s mother would have called her royalty, weaving magic with hands that feed more than they eat, filling her children with golden spoons made of blessed coins.

Shira’s father was careful to give each person their voice at the table. He circulated conversation and the drinks, flitting between English, Hebrew, Russian, and Yiddish, or maybe German. Shem laughed when others laughed—even when she did not understand a word—and was surprised to find it genuinely funny, though she didn’t know what it was.

Around the beginning of the main course, Shira’s father and another man seemed to be falling into a friendly argument. Shem looked around the room and back to a box on the wall that had caught her eye when she first entered the house. She turned to Shira: “What is that, there on the wall, next to the painting?” Shira looked over.

“Oh, that’s an amulet that has been in our family for generations. The scroll inside is even said to have been scribed by the Baal Shem Tov.”

“What’s inside it?”

“Names, lots of names, powerful names that it would blind us to read. Our language is magic.”

“What is it meant to protect you from?”

“A little bit of everything. I think it was originally for childbirth. My great-great grandmother had six miscarriages before she made the investment, and then twelve healthy children after that.”

“And no more miscarriages?”

“Only one or two…”

Shira’s father, who had turned to speak in Hebrew with some mischievous-looking Yeshivah boys, shifted his attentions to Shira and Shem. “My mother, Chaya-Sarah, fragrant be her memory, was the first child born under the auspicions of that amulet, so when she came of age and started trying for children, her mother gave it to her.

“A year later, unspeakable acts of destruction befell our people, and my mother needed to escape. A goy she thought she could trust, a butcher, offered to smuggle her and her family out. They packed what they could carry without arousing suspicions. She put it in her pocket. It fell through a hole in the lining almost immediately, but Chaya-Sarah didn’t notice until they were about halfway there.

“Chaya-Sarah felt so anxious about the loss that she decided to run back, insisting that the others go on and that she would catch up. She found the amulet sitting right on her doorstep, and as she turned around to start heading back she heard gunfire in the distance.”

“They all died?” Shem asked.

“Where are you from? Of course. She hid until nightfall and then ran back to them. No one was bothering to clean bodies off the street by then. She sat with them all night, then left. The goy must have ratted them out. Down the street sometimes I still see him at the rubbish heap, searching for his fingernails.”

“What happened to her after that?”

“She was sent to a concentration camp on the next train. She smuggled the amulet in and survived. She married a man in one of the refugee camps, got pregnant immediately, had a child, then two years later was stabbed to death on a train.”

Shem excused herself to the bathroom.

On her way there, something fragrant from an open door arrested her memories, like a sweater snagged on a nail, and she wandered in. The room was filled with dried orange peels engraved in Hebrew. She picked one up, but in so many ways her knowledge was insufficient to the task of decoding the script. She picked another up, but no luck. She could have kept trying that way for hours—there were so many and her hope sprung eternal.

The soft sparkle of the bells against their companions in the open window put Shem at ease. As a draft spread throughout the room, it carried those small chimes with it like ghosts of mice that died a long time ago.

When the old man in the room began speaking, Shem jumped. She could only understand about a quarter of what he was saying, but it was obvious that he thought she was someone else. He said a name, then whispered it. When he touched her face, she stood very still. With one hand he touched hers and with the other his, and seemed shocked to find a difference.

Shem didn’t want to speak. In any language, it would become obvious that she was not who this man remembered. Everything in her body screamed against seeing him cry, and his face made clear that such a betrayal would indeed pull out the tears that were already just under his eyelids.

Something in her eyes—again—or maybe the softness of her cheek, gave Shem away, and the man started to cry anyway. She held him as he wept. Shira walked in, smiled, and whispered to her grandfather. They exchanged a few words, and he laughed.

“He mistook you for your grandfather.”

“I figured. What’s all the engraved fruit about?”



“People that died a long time ago.”

“Why didn’t I see him at the funeral?”

“He doesn’t go out much, that’s why he sent my parents and me.”

Shira’s grandfather spoke a few words to Shira while smiling at Shem.

“What’s he saying,” Shem asked.

“He’s saying how much you look like your grandfather when he was a child, all blood and milk. He says that that child grew like young grass in the rain, knew the language of fire and never forgot.”

Shira frowned a little at the last phrase and looked at her grandfather, concerned. By the end of the translation, though, her grandfather had lost interest and, with all the reckless exhaustion of the elderly, turned back to his bed, let out a little fart, and laid down facing the wall.

Shem and Shira watched him until he began to snore, then Shem looked around. “Should we go back to dinner?”

The sound of something shattering. When Shem and Shira returned to the dining room, the baby had started crying and an older man, pink in the face, was stooped, picking up shards. Shira’s father smiled, drinking his wine. They sat back down, and Shira’s father asked his nephew how his business was faring (Shem guessed). Dessert, then tea.

Shira’s father turned to Shem, asked, “Do you have any cousins?”

“Yes, a few, but I haven’t seen them since I was a child,” Shem responded.


“Some of them.”

Something in Shira stiffened.

“You know, your grandfather and I were Koheins. We both carried an unbroken thread that shoots straight to the high priests of ancient Israel.”

“I know what a Kohein is.”

“I’m glad that your grandfather’s line continues. With only a daughter, I guess that’s the end of mine. Imagine: a hundred generations and then that’s it, suddenly it’s over.”

“If you go that far back in history you have trillions of ancestors, what does it matter if this one line doesn’t look exactly like you imagined?” Shira asked. She was very still. This was an old argument.

Shira’s father looked at the Yeshiva boys, telling their own story to each other, smirking and nudging, and then at Shem.

“The whole world is a narrow bridge indeed,” he said softly. “A rickety ridge between the two great voids of before-life and after-death.”

“Except those lines don’t really exist, do they?” Shira’s father seemed surprised that Shem had responded. Shem was surprised, too.

“Our names are recycled, our stories are re-told, even our souls are placed into a child’s body if they didn’t have enough time to do what they needed before. Inside our mother’s stomachs we bathe in the words of the Torah, and even though we forget it all when we are born, the stories of everything that came before are still what made us. Nothing ever dies.”

Shira’s father smiled into his wine. “No, I suppose not.” Looking straight at Shem as if for the first time, he noted: “You’re a hen that crows like a cockerel but I like your sound.”

At the end of the evening, Shem and Shira were back on the couch, listening to Shira’s cousin tell her children a story. Shira translated, in fragments:

As above earth, so too below,                the warm summer air rolled in

through the windows. The jealous man had been up all night, starving

to know everything held in Solomon’s ring. Across the courtyard,

in his tower, Solomon waves to the jealous man, jeweled hand…    bright

with the jewels. No. Gleaming? Sparkling? Gleaming. Gleaming

with the jewels. The jealous man hasn’t slept

in his unmade bed for days. Rumors                 circulate

that the angel Raziel carved his thousands of secrets onto Solomon’s sapphire

and left it behind.

Word has it that Solomon grows paranoid, possessive

of the knowledge from which he carved his kingdom. But none of that shows

in the shape of the waving man with the gleaming hand.

Yes, gleaming.

The storks on the roof across the jealous man’s view huddle together.

The trees shake off the birds and pass each other sunlight underground.

The jealous man decides to steal the ring. And he steals it. So what?

What was on it?

Shira listened for a long time. Shem listened, too, but heard nothing.

                                One name. A name that was every name,

in all its beauty, and the absence of a name, in all its horror.

The jealous man, speaking the name, blinded himself.

The storks didn’t return.

A child started to wail, and Shem stood to leave. Shira suggested that Shem stay the night, but her mother smothered this suggestion before it had time to fill its lungs, with an offer for one of the Yeshivah boys to escort Shem back down the hill. Shem politely declined. At the door, she hugged Shira goodbye. They squeezed each other so tight that their chests ached.

“Do you want to know a secret?” Shira asked, holding Shem’s hands. After a moment of consideration, Shem declined. Walking back down the hill, she was unsure why she was crying.
Chapter 1: On Kabbalah

One of several Jewish mystical strands, Kabbalah reveals the connections “between the divine and corporeal worlds.”1 Morphing and reshaping itself over the centuries to fit the contexts of time, land, and need into which it fell, the body of literature surrounding Kabbalah is extensive, diverse, and occasionally in contradiction with itself.

Kabbalah as a word comes from QBL.2 The basic translation is “to receive” in regards to any oral tradition.3 Rather than constituting a specific canon, Kabbalah was historically a general genre encompassing a range of esoteric movements. Today’s Kabbalah began to take shape from around the 1100s as a more precise, esoteric style of received Jewish tradition, dealing in particular with divine names.4

According to Gershom Scholem in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, the passion and intrigue surrounding Kabbalah arises from a desire to uncover the “hidden life beneath the external shape of reality and to make visible that abyss in which the symbolic nature of all that exists reveals itself.”5 Kabbalah can be seen as a means of knowing the divine, and using that knowledge to shield oneself by “calling forth protective power from the realm of the ineffable.”6

Kabbalah contains “the tension between thought and action, mortal and divine, finite and infinite…”7 In that containment, it articulates the longing “to affect both the physical and supernal worlds, and by so doing, shape our own individual destinies.”8 Such longing has resonated over the centuries, going on to influence entities as far ranging as Polish Hasidism, European occultism, Freemasonry, and Mila Kunis.9

By definition, Kabbalah is opaque, dense. Traditionally, only men over 40 were allowed to even attempt to unlock its secrets. To simplify it in any way—to try to drag it out of the esoteric realm that defines it—is to lose the essence of it and run the risk of misunderstanding.10

So don’t get me wrong: This text is not a key to Kabbalah, even if it may walk and quack that way. It’s shards, fragments, shreddings that I piece together to form a journey into which I beg to enter and leave in peace.11

While we wait

A cross-fade is all it will take to expose her, and there she will be, leaning against a tree, or a wall, or a foolish boy. She is waiting, listening to a man crying out of an open window. He’s in pain. Maybe he’s screaming. Maybe it’s anger. A bird in the tree above her head screams too, and flaps its wings because it wants to fight and then fuck—that much is for sure. The cold air doesn’t touch her. The man’s screams don’t really touch her. She is waiting, eyes wide and moist, mouth shut. She’s freezing her ass off waiting. She stomps her feet to tell the ghosts buried in the concrete to keep it down—they’re screaming, too. There is one moment, one clean moment, where she looks right at us. Then she forgets again. In the distance, a rumble like TV static.

Further definitions

In the 14th century, as Kabbalah began to gain definition, a distinction between speculative Kabbalah (Kabbalah Iyyunit) and practical Kabbalah (Kabbalah Ma’asit) was drawn.12 Where speculative Kabbalah encompasses the types of Kabbalah that represent mystical approaches to the search for inner spiritual guidance, practical Kabbalah falls into more magical practices, including the conjugation of angels.13 Within that, we can perceive three types of Jewish magic: astral, philosophic, linguistic.14

The linguistic strain is founded upon the notion within Judaism and neighboring cultures that Hebrew is a special language, powerful—the only language understood by the angels. Because there was the idea that one who knows Loshn Koydesh15 deep to its core can manipulate the letter combinations of divine names and biblical passages like the Shema to “exert magical influences,” there are many amulets about the place, both Jewish and not, written in Hebrew.16

Within philosophic magic, on the other hand, the user is able to affect this world by devekut17 : the cleaving between the physical and the ethereal that elevates “the human spiritual capacity into a comprehensive spiritual entity that rules over the world…”18 Through this transformation, the practitioner can gain the power to alter the physical world.19

The third category—astral magic—relies on harnessing the spiritual forces that are held in celestial bodies, using objects and rituals harmonious with the features of the desired body.20 Idolatry is a kind of astral magic.21

There’s a story in the Hebrew Bible, from the period of the first Temple, of Elisha cursing a group of rowdy children “by the Name of the Lord.”22 Once he does, two bears emerge from the forest and maul forty-two of the children. In another instance, a couple gets in an argument with someone. They speak the name of God,23 and God orders the someone’s execution.24 These kinds of magic were not unusual for the time and match contemporaneous stories from other cultures.25 There were also more object-based magics, including bells to drive away demons and the prophetic powers that lay with the stones embedded in the hoshen26 of the Temple Kohein.27

The Jew

The belief in Hebrew as a magic language in many instances throughout history gave Jews the reputation for being particularly skilled with magic themselves. During the coronation of Richard I in London, a Jewish delegation that came with their arms full of gifts and pledges was accused of having undertaken the journey with the evil intention of casting spells over the king. (Are we to be Sleeping Beauty’s witch, too?)

The crowd set upon the delegation, starting the wave of country-wide pogroms that lasted more than a year and a half.28 At that time, Jews halted many customary practices, such as searching out the leaven prior to Passover, for fear of being perceived as practicing strange rituals.29

Then there is the more magical cousin to blood libel, in which Jews are accused of using a murdered boy’s bowels for divination.30

And so on.

The sefirot

A core component of Kabbalah is the sefirot: a framework in which the divine realm is broken down into ten divine powers.31 Some Kabbalists see the sefirot as “constituent elements of the divine essence”—a notion that would blow monotheism out of the water, because it would mean the divine realm is a composite of many powers rather than one almighty power.32 Other Kabbalists see them as the tools of divine action (“creation, revelation and providence”).33 Fewer say that the sefirot are the “divine presence in the world” or that these powers are present in the human soul.34

The blanket

I’ll tell you a small secret I haven’t told anyone before: when I was young and my father lied and left me behind (that’s no secret—hold your horses), I believed for years that I should not and could not say a bad word about him, because he could hear everything. In his absence, he became omnipotent.

I guess35 the thing that happens when you don’t know where someone is, is that they end up being everywhere. Without them, you are chained to them, their breath always warm on your neck. The first year after he died, I experienced the same sensation. But as grief dulls, this feeling, too, drifts away from me again.

I feel that my quilts and other textiles, especially once they’re finished, can hear me. They absorb everything. Sometimes they soften, sometimes they amplify. They are a door and a shelter, a window and a curtain. We hold each other and I hope I’m working hard enough that it’s a good magic.

Chapter 1: Amulets and, later, their aspects

In the Jewish tradition, amulets are the daily physical manifestations of Kabbalistic beliefs into objects made to protect their owner against physical and spiritual evils. As a result, they form a unique bridge between the divine and the material.36 Jews who didn’t have complete access to the intellectual body of Kabbalah could use these objects as their portal. Amulets thus become a distillation of knowledge that was otherwise inaccessible to many, while often leaning on the more relatable frameworks of common sense and folk medicine.37

In the expanded field, Jewish culture is rife with apotropaic objects—that is, objects that are believed to be able to avert evil influences and shield the owner from bad luck. Though some would argue against it,38 mezuzot—the little scrolls with the Shema written on them and tucked into every doorway of a traditional Jewish household—seem a common amulet to me. Lots of Jews don’t think the mezuzah is an amulet because it’s about celebrating and extolling rather than personal protection,39 but the way we kiss it on the doorway and fear its absence says something more, at least to my ear.

Early amulets

The Talmudic term for amulet, kame’a, derives from a root meaning either “to bind” or “to hang,”40 speaking to the jewelry-like nature of many early amulets, both Jewish and otherwise.41 The earliest definitely Jewish amulets I’ve read about are pieces of thin metal, inscribed with text, rolled up, placed in a metal or cloth case, and worn around the neck or wrist.42 Gold was rare, while a cheaper, bright kind of silver was more common because the brightness made it seem like a lucky metal.43

The amulets I examined at the New York Public Library were found in tombs excavated in Irbid. Originating between the second and fifth centuries AD, they are thin sheets of metal stamped with sacred words and kept in capsules of gold or bone. One of the silver ones has specks of turquoise. The gloves I wore to examine them snagged on their centuries-old corners.

Though Jewish amulets are firmly rooted in Jewish material and visual culture, when it came to safety, Jews were not above incorporating a tactic from their neighbor if it looked like it worked. And beyond just the language in which the magic words were written, the neighbors would do their fair share of borrowing, too.44 Eyes and hands, for example, show up in any number of amulets from around the world. This is perhaps in part through international languages of protection: a hand put out to block something that advances, an eye that stays open even when yours are closed. Specific stylizations of such motifs would often spread similarly throughout different communities within a given region.

Popular amulets from the first century CE through Late Antiquity amongst Jews as well as their neighbors were semi-precious gems engraved with images, set in metal and shaped to be worn as jewelry-like necklaces or rings, or else tied to the clothes, arms, wrists.45 Paired amulets (especially common as a pair of armbands) bear a long continuous inscription that starts on one and continues on the other at whatever point the first ran out of space.46

In another early example, a black piece of jasper shows an aspirational image of a man bending over to harvest wheat. The gem features the inscription “for the hips.”47 In Late Antiquity and the Byzantine era, mirror plaques became popular. These tablets of painted clay or stone with one or more tiny inset mirrors were hung on walls in the shapes of fish, birds, Temples, menorahs, and circles, used to reflect the evil eye back at the looker.48

The engraver of these amulets was usually not the person who wrote the text; many engravers worked from memory or did not even understand what they were engraving, leading to a lot of errors.49 Often the owner themselves would not be able to recognise the mistakes, especially as amulets were often covered, permanently or temporarily, so the wearer could go to dirty places and do dirty work without profaning them.50

In one case, a misspelling must have occurred due to oral transmission, as the correct and incorrect phrases are phonetically identical in Sephardi pronunciation.51 In another typographical error, Zamarchad—an angel—is recorded as Zamargad—the Kingdom of Lilith.52 I wonder how the owner fared in the end.

A true family story

There is a necklace with a ח on it that was given to my grandmother when she was born, passed down to my mum and then to me.

Both my mum and I like that the Jewishness of the necklace takes an unusual format. Most non-Jews will not recognize the symbol, or assume it to be Greek. Even for Jews, a necklace with a ח not followed by a י is something somewhat remarkable.53 Together with י, the letter ח spells the Hebrew word for life, but by itself it is still the most powerful letter in the Hebrew alphabet, with the numerical value of 18—the number of life.

ח is also the first letter of the name of God that literally means “the name.” This is my favorite name of God, as the one that speaks most directly to the power of words, and to God as the sacredness of storytelling.

When she had it, my mum would wear it 24/7, not taking it off for anything. I do the same. As a consequence, there have been some close calls over the decades—weakened clasps, loops ground down to thin wire from years of sliding against chains. It has fallen off both our necks numerous times. My mum once dropped it in a parking lot after a Jewish wedding, miles from home, only to realize and come back for it hours later. Once I thought I had lost it for more than a year, until I found it in the hidden inner pocket of a disused bag.

Somehow, each time, it comes back to us. A friend once said to me that I do not have the same need for it as my ancestors. In many ways, she’s right, but I also sincerely believe that if it decided not to return to me one day, and shortly thereafter I died, its loss could be noted as my cause of death.

Telling you this reminds me of a story once told to me of a tzaddik who was well-versed in both prescriptions and amulets. One day, one of the tzaddik’s most devoted followers, who had been suffering from persistent migraines for quite some time, came to him asking for a cure. The tzaddik handed the man a piece of paper on which he had written a prescription in Polish for some medicine.

The man, unable to read Polish, understood the paper to be an amulet, which he wore under his hat every day thereafter.

He did not experience a single migraine again, until one day a gust of wind blew his hat off and the paper was lost.

A contemporary case

On the 11:00pm Staten Island ferry home from my twelfth day of studying amulets at the New York Public Library, a man glances at me. His glance feels like a violent gust of wind that sends physical waves through my body. The eye, I think. He’s thrown it at me, I think. Suddenly I feel dizzy. It’s a struggle to push through the newfound chills, the exhaustion, to make it the rest of the way home.

I WhatsApp my friend, begging how to reverse this spell. She tells me where to put chilis and salt. I study my research of the past two weeks—the magic words, the blessings to recite. About a half-hour later, struggling to sleep, I become arrested by a piece of instrumental music stuck in my head, gripped by a certainty that I will die if I do not find it and listen to it immediately, though I cannot remember its name. One song into my search for it I forget how it goes entirely, and fall asleep shortly after.

In the morning, I wake up and test positive for COVID-19.

On eating it up

I went on a date with someone who told me that cults and Christian horse camps place their targets on low-fiber, high-sugar diets to make them more susceptible to introduced ideology. On some Chabad page I was perusing, I once read that faith must be ingested. Food is one of the key intersections between folk medicine and apotropaic practices—the latter being more about the performance than the chemistry, but perhaps these things are not always separate.

If you write an amulet on a citrus leaf or engrave it on a citrus fruit or an apple, does the scent that wafts not chemically soothe your system? If you eat that apple, do you not find protection in its nutrients? You could also write them on a hard-boiled egg’s shell instead, or knead them into bread.54

In the Ottoman Empire, Jewish and Muslim newborns alike would receive a gold coin for an amulet. In one surviving example, the coin was molded into a spoon. “Used for feeding, the amuletic qualities of the coin would be imparted to the child at every meal.”55 As would the antibacterial properties of the metal.

More on this later.

Prequel: The beginning

Many philosophers on the nature of words would have you believe that to name something is to kill it.56 By reining in its essence, one deadens it to all the possibilities that come with being untethered in its thing-ness.

In Judaism, words come first. The story goes that the word of God brought everything into being. Rather than words attaching themselves to the thing like a virus and killing it, the word gives birth to the thing.

In Kabbalah, with the right name, even if something is perhaps killed (does the cinema teach us anything if not that there is always a cost to magic?), something else begins to sing in a register beyond the human ear. Old worlds can be broken and new worlds remade this way. This is the power of language and real names.

I too want to catch something, to hold it and share it. Sometimes I’m worried that such desire is reckless, like a kid with a jar of bugs. More often I’m worried about how much would be lost in the alternative.

What I’m trying to say is, before a baby knows words, its mother sings to it songs of hardship. Once the baby learns words, she sings of the infant’s bright future.

What I’m trying to say is, the best thing about puzzles is the feeling of pieces that were separated coming back together like no time has passed—a feeling that’s impossible to match in life.

What I’m trying to say is, the teeth I see behind glass at the museum were once in someone’s mouth.

Chapter 1: Names

Broadly, there are three models of Kabbalistic thought (similar to the three types of magic I outlined earlier): theosophical-theurgical, ecstatic, and magical-talismanic. The ecstatic model, best represented by Polish Hasidism, emphasizes the power in the intermingling of imagination, human intellect, and cosmic intellect.57

Within the theosophical-theurgical model, on the other hand, language becomes hyper-semantic.58 The core of many amulets in this tradition come down to harnessing the inherent power of divine names.59 The standard term for people who could activate charms, adjurations, and names for someone in need is ba’alei shemot, itself meaning “master of names.”60

Most apotropaic texts start with the phrase “In the name of…”,61 followed by various names of angels, God, and other powerful figures.62 The name of God used is frequently Shaddai (the Almighty), as it is seen as particularly strong against magic.63 The perfect amulet begins with a magical name like that, followed by a Bible passage, then the request/prayer, then amen three times and selah.64 One example of this:

X at my right Y at my left Z at my head, angels let me find favor and grace before all men, great and small, and before all of whom I have need, in the name of W Amen Amen Amen Selah.65

Another amulet template is the names of God and angels, biblical phrases describing God’s power, the function of the amulet, the name of the amulet’s owner, and their mother’s name.66


Words are heavy in Judaism all over the place, no less so in amulets. On an amulet, even just repeating the same significant name over and over can be powerful.67 In one amulet’s inscription, it is seen that listing the constituents of an incense bundle is enough to conjure the herbs’ protective effects.68

Such is the power of words that in many communities lingers the idea that by counting something you can destroy it (another tragedy of the Shoah), which is why pages are counted with letters instead, or preceded by “not” (such as nisht-eyns).69 In another tactic of opposites, the evil eye could be called the good eye to speak it without calling it forth.70


Powerful words gather to form powerful sentences; powerful sentences gather to form powerful books. In the Middle Ages, the Book of Psalms would be recited to ward off evil, and instruction books for making amulets were seen as able to protect the house in which they were stored.71 Solomon’s wisdom came from the angel Raziel’s sapphire, upon which was cut the collection of astrological secrets that make the Book of Raziel—one such apotropaic book.72

Chapter 1: The spiral

I think before I go too much further I should share with you something pretty fundamental for me. For those who know and love me—apologies, I’ve probably told you this before. Go ahead and skip this section—those who are acquaintances and strangers to me will catch up with you on the other side.

In a Jewish conception of time my Yiddish teacher shared with me some years back, there is a series of concentric circles. In the center of the smallest circle are the oldest and most revered texts and figures in Jewish history—Moses, Torah, God, etc. In the next circle out, there are some later works—Talmud, that Elisha fellow, and so on. The next circle out again holds later texts still—maybe Sholem Aleichem shows up, maybe Kafka does too. The next circle, later again—Seinfeld, Haim, Casey perhaps.

What defines Jewish time is that we begin in the middle, but it’s not a one-way journey from there to now. Jewish time spirals back to the center again, and then back out again, and then back in again. Every day, every year, every generation marbles through the sands laid down by what has come before, changing and being changed by the journey.

This is why it’s said we walk into the future backwards—we are seeing and holding everything that has come before, dragging it into the unknown behind our backs.73
I promise I’ll move on now, though.

Chapter 2: Resources

The medium of the amulets was not fixed worldwide. Different communities relied on the materials that were most readily available to them. Whether the amulet was held in parchment, metal, herbs, words, fabric, or another material depended on the profession and income of the community. Many Jews of Italy were silversmiths, so many Italian Jewish amulets are silver, while paper was a more common material in Eastern Europe.74 Iron is a strong protective force in Jewish culture, so those who could afford the material would often use iron to make a spell that cannot break.75

Fire (I bid you to burn)

Common materials of day-to-day life would often carry certain powers, symbolisms, and restrictions with them. Fire was seen as an especially powerful force, and for good reason—a material that can warm or burn, soothe or hurt. It was believed to have the ability to understand human speech and hear everything spoken in front of it.76 It was also believed to be able to speak, but only in a language that young children could understand.77

A fire in the hearth making noise is a sign that you’re being talked about in heaven, so you should say Redn zoo men guts: Would that they were speaking well.78 Fire’s particular rules and power are an extension of its significant role in the sacrifices of Temple times. Some practices, such as burning a small piece of challah dough in the same oven as the whole challah is baking, especially reflect this history.79

This rich history of burning things and things being burnt in Jewish culture, from the Temple sacrifices on, encompasses many practices, including burning deadly nightshade, sulfur, tar, or juniper to keep demons away.80 For protection from misfortune, one could hang the lulav bundle above the front door after prayers on Hoshana Rabah through the beginning of Passover, then burn it with the chametz—the scraps of leaven that must be disposed of before Passover—and use those remains in the fire of the matzah—the unleavened bread eaten on Passover.81

Fire would not be lent, lest Hell return it. If someone needed fire to start their own, the giver would need to say: “I won’t give it to you, and I don’t want you to give it back to me. Take it yourself.” The receiver should not say thank you, either. The phrase “May your hearth grow cold” is also one of the cruelest wishes a Jew can offer.82


Salt is a common ingredient in apotropaic recipes. Upon moving into a house, one must bring a gift of bread and salt (in addition to a candle and sugar, according to others) to the demons after moving in.83 To neutralize “the harmful effects of libelous accusations by one’s enemies,” throw salt in the oven.84 For vomiting or teething, fill a small sachet with walnut shells containing salt, pepper, almonds, and a live lizard.”85

For a general amulet, wrap garlic, amber, or salt in a handkerchief, or sew it into the child’s clothing.86 For protection from spells, fill a sachet with pepper, salt, a spider, pins, crayfish eyes, earth from under the threshold, some fabric from a shroud, and a goose feather quill filled with lead.87 For teething, a heart-shaped sachet with stolen salt, pepper, and allspice.88

A meal, to be called a meal, must contain bread dipped into salt or an alternative condiment to recall the salting of the Temple offerings.89 Maybe it’s my generosity to my God that I love salt and bread so much.

To heal

Historically, the lines between medicines and apotropaic goods have been a little blurry, especially as a prayer would always be seen as either neutral or additional assurance to any remedy. The early doctors of Eastern European villages were often much less likely to set you right than your local healer, who might combine the magic with the medicinal but would listen and give you cures that made much more sense for your history, your place, your people.90

Some of these recipes were pretty straightforward herbal remedies. Spiderwebs as bandages for cuts and wounds seems to have been a common practice.91 Chamomile baths for yeast infections and chamomile infusions for colds.92 Aloe on wounds, soothing black eyes, curbing hair loss.93 Sage for paralysis.94

Then there are the protective items sewn into clothing, wrapped into a handkerchief or stuck into the pocket.95 A bag of rue, hyssop, and deadly nightshade formed a protection from spells.96 Fennel warding off any kind of hurt.97 Onyx offering grace and charisma.98 Jasper to restrain blood and news from getting out.99

The stars

Just as amulets are created for protection from the world around us, they are created from pieces of the world around us. Times of day to do things, times of day not to do things. The moon. The stars. Rava said that “the length of our life, having children, and our source of income are not dependent on our merits but on our star.”100 A lucky person is a bar-mazl (son of a good star), while a shlimazl is a bad star.101

I hate when people hate astrology, because it goes so far back. How can a medieval description of an Aries written by a Hasidic Jew completely align with the contemporary take and my lived reality of my fire-laden best friend unless there is truth to it?102

A cross or two squares made into an eight-pointed star “cast the evil eye to the four winds.”103 There are spirit-birds that travel around the upper atmosphere, listening in on the “princes of the stars” who gossip about the future. They come back and tell men who happen to be nearby when they sing of it through certain songs.104

There was a folk belief that everyone had a star, and if you saw a fading or shooting star in the morning you would die that year, unless you exclaimed “not mine!”, “not my star!” or “I am not yours, you are not mine!” three times while plucking a hair from your head.105 If you saw a brightly shining star, you would say, “This one is mine.”106

My moon my moon

Both stars and crescents were seen as combating “the evil influence.”107 Indeed, much is made of the moon and its cycles. And why wouldn’t it? If something is powerful enough to control the waters of the ocean, surely it is powerful enough to control the waters of other bodies, and since we are mostly water, that’s a lot of control. There are a whole set of rules for making amulets according to the Book of Raziel based on time of month and day.108

Rosh Hodesh—the Jewish festival of the new moon—is a celebratory and lucky day.109 In the three preceding days, one is advised to fast, give alms, and study hard.110 It was understood that a spirit council gathers to discuss the well-being of the living during the new moon, and what happens on Rosh Hodesh will continue through the month.111 It was also the best day for starting things—moving house and getting married—but any time during the first half of the month was auspicious for such steps.112

The herbs with the strongest therapeutic powers could also be gathered on Rosh Hodesh.113 Cutting hair or fingernails on the new moon, on the other hand, was not recommended, since you shouldn’t cut things down on a day that brings you growth.114

While the waxing moon, as above, advances growth and development, the waning one pushes death and decay, being known as the time when things rot and go bad.115 Clothing that’s been soaked in water, cut trees, fruits and grains harvested when the moon is diminishing rot quickly.116 Eleazar of Worms says that the brain contracts during the last quarters of the moon, and expands in the first quarter.117

The time

There was a Slavic perception of the Jews as planetarians, with the power to influence the weather.118 Indeed many of the Kabbalistic texts talk of seasons and astrology. Each star sign has an angel, each season has an angel. It’s unlucky to start a day, week, or year with a loss, because it represents what’s to follow.119 It’s unlucky to start anything on a Monday or Wednesday at all.120

There were many signs for specific days. If you go out on the night of Hoshana Rabbah and see your shadow without a head you will die in the coming year.121 A boy born in a feminine zodiac sign will not live.122 The 17th of Tammuz to the 9th of Av—the three weeks in which the Romans pushed through to the Temple and burnt it down—is traditionally unlucky and a time to avoid cutting hair or long journeys.123

Jews are full of measurements. Measuring time, as above, by what it might bring or withhold—by the seasons, by history, by the festivals, by the stars. Measuring the world in words. Other measurements too: women would measure graves with string during the Days of Awe, later making out of that string candles.124 A single grave would be measured by one woman, while a full cemetery by two or three, from the entrance from right to left.125 The measuring was not wholly about the measurement, however, but about the pacing and praying—symbolically cordoning off “the space occupied by death.”126

A person with a serious illness could also be measured with string, which should then make a wick for a candle that is either wrapped in a shroud and buried in the cemetery or brought to a synagogue.127

Another spiral

Rabbi Hanina and Rabbi Oshaya used to come together every Friday to study the Book of Creation. Each Friday they would study hard and learn how to conjure a three-year-old calf, which they would then eat. Upon its consumption, they would forget how they made it, starting again from scratch the following week.128

Chapter 3: Fears

The popularity of amulets reflects a larger desire for everyday anxieties—what we don’t have control over—to be made OK.

The vast majority of surviving amulets are for childbirth.129 Birth amulets shaped like knives have been found in Morocco, Kurdistan, Alsace, southern Germany, and elsewhere.130 There is this set of instructions for a woman prone to miscarriage: in the ninth month of a pregnancy, go to a dog who is giving birth, place her right foot on a puppy that matches the gender of her own child and say three times: “Take this dead one and give me a live one.” Then put the puppy on her stomach with its head facing right, and then drop it in the water of a river, and say that phrase again three or seven times.131

There are other superstitions around children already born, including that good luck would disappear if you let a kid go out the window to pee.132 When going home, never call out to your child by name, because it might have just found a treasure and if you call out both will disappear.133


The proliferation of childbirth-related amulets was likely a result of the fact that the experience places both mother and child in such close proximity to death. In this and other forms, death is perhaps, directly or indirectly, the most popular demon against which amulets fight.


Luther satirized the reputation of Jews and their amulets in this anecdote: Count Albrecht of Saxony was brought an amulet by a Jew and promised that this amulet would render the wearer immune to all weapons of attack. To test it, Albrecht hung the amulet on the Jew’s neck and stabbed him with a sword.134


I’ve been wondering recently, what would it take to no longer be afraid? Or, even if we were still afraid, to not have death define us? What are we protected from inside of such fear? What fear do we go on to cause in others because of our own and how do we come to call it justice?135

No ghosts in the city

For those who hovered between life and death, there was a particular practice by professional mourners in the town of Apt.

When a person was on their deathbed and definitely going to die, they would call on a group of women known for such services to run through the streets to the synagogue, throw open the doors of the Aron HaKodesh—exposing the resting place of the Torah scrolls and the divine spirit—and beg the Almighty to save the dying one from death: “When the town’s children witnessed this performance, they knew a funeral would take place the next day.”136

During times of plague, a ceremonial burial of the fragment of a Hebrew book or scrap of paper with God’s name on it was a “substitute burial” that was meant to end the plague; another object could be used for the same purpose.137

Signs of death were all around. A dream about digging meant the dreamer would soon perish.138 A cat running under the chuppah between the bride and groom meant neither would live through the rest of the year.139

The journey

It was understood that death kicks in with the death breathing, agony, loss of consciousness.140 Once this unfortunate set of circumstances befell an individual, there were certain rules: a bed frame shouldn’t be made of iron because it would creak; keep the key to the synagogue under their pillow “to ease their suffering”; extinguish the light; if the house is one room, turn the dying to face the wall (if they turn that way themselves, it’s imminent death, and if they die that way it’s because they died angry, ashamed, or unreconciled).141 And so forth.

Many of these rules had superstitious undertones to them, but many could be seen as a practical set of outlines for keeping someone (and their family) comfortable as they travel further away from this world. If all of it failed and the dying did die, and with their eyes open, it meant they had nostalgia for this world.142 To avoid the evil eye, the living would apologize and close the eyes and mouth as needed.143

After death, one would open the windows immediately, putting a glass of water and a rag on the sill for ablutions.144 Small children were taken out of the room for fear that if they fell asleep the dead person’s spirit could suffocate them.145 No one, especially those children, was to kiss the deceased.146 The living protected themselves by covering the deceased’s face and looking at their feet (specifically toenails in at least one community).147

Once they heard, lamenters would come to the house without invitation.148 They would accompany the body to the cemetery while wailing, to awaken the deceased to their responsibility to “intercede for the living before the heavenly throne.”149 The lamenters would later demand payment.150

The afflicted would see in the dead an opportunity for their pain to be carried away from them to that great big elsewhere. To make that happen, they could make their request, rub the corpse’s hand on the place of physical affliction, then apologize and go home.151

After washing the deceased, the water would be poured somewhere no one goes, otherwise people might accidentally interact with it and develop an illness, but for some diseases including alcoholism it was drunk as a cure.152 A piece of shroud as an ingredient in different amulets is not uncommon, but whether that shroud is new or used is never clear to me.153

It was understood that once the body was interred, the neshama departed for heaven. In the week after burial, the nefesh wanders between its former home and the grave. Between the end of that week and a year after death, it will leave and return to the grave many times. Only the ruach stayed forever inside the body.154

Ghosts everywhere

You don’t just need protection from death—you need protection from the dead. It was understood that the dead could hear everything, and would respond accordingly.155

The grass from the graves of ancestors could be placed under the head of someone seriously ill.156 A scarf placed on the grave was said to make the wearer dream of the deceased offering them fruit, and then to later recover.157 There are a number of similar stories of recovery from the Shoah.158

A friend says there are no ghosts in the city, but I think only cities that have fully forgotten themselves are absent of ghosts. I get what she means though—the air here is too loud to hear the dead lingering outside the windows, weeping, or sinners looking for their discarded fingernails on rubbish heaps.159

Havdalah was seen as a particularly potent time for the lingering of spirits, as even Gehenna rests on the Sabbath.160 Dumah (the angel in charge of Gehenna) releases his spirits during Shabbat to “gambol in the fields, to eat the fruit hanging on the trees and drink the water in the streams.”161 To eat or drink just before the end of the Sabbath was seen as stealing from them and very bad luck.162

Some stories say, the smelling of pungent spices on Havdalah is to offset the stench of hell beginning its burning again, or to steel the body for the departure of the “additional soil” that inhabited it on the Sabbath.163 Even after Havdalah, you’re not meant to work in the evening (for some communities, at the beginning of the Sabbath instead) most of the time because any malevolent spirits still hanging around might get you for it.164 In some regions, this was only seen as applicable to people who have lost a near relative in the past year, which would make the additional hours of rest a thoughtful extra bit of bereavement leave.165


It is said that when God was making demons on the eve of the first Sabbath (he had to make them but he saved them for last because ugh, right?), he made their souls, but was running late and had to start the Sabbath without making the rest. This is why they don’t have bodies.166

There were167 many gathering places for demons, including 1450 types on a woman’s fingernails during her period.168 Caves and potholes were seen as dangerous gateways to the underworld because evil beings lived under the ground, hoarding and guarding treasure there.169

Before moving in somewhere it was seen as wise to bury a coin or organize a feast for scholars or paupers as an offering to the demons that live in that earth.170 Newly built houses were seen as especially risky to find a demon, and if one was forced to move in, a sofer should write amulets on kosher parchment for above the front door and windows.171

There were many kinds of demons. A shretele was a sprite that could be found living in a chimney or under the bed. For a fee, if both demon and inhabitant were amenable, it would mind the children and help deliver completed work.172 Shabriri was the demon of blindness.173

On the bus the other day

The turn indicator warbled like a heartbeat. The woman asked the driver a question he didn't know the answer to and he hated her for it—making him look foolish like that, weak. Who does she think she is? After she got off the bus, she walked past the police officers with guns. She didn’t stop. That evening, her friend’s child touched her face, and she thought, no one had looked at her with that kind of awe in a long time.

In all of this, she was waiting to get home and tell you how that morning she jammed her finger between the chair arm and the desk

and thought she was going to die for a second

and then she didn’t.

That she never does and never will.

When the bad magic is deflected, where does it go?

Elsewhere, a mother teaches her child a new game. Parents and friends find their bodies filled with new holes.174 A woman begins to recite an old prayer: if something falls from the sky, let it be snow.175

[1] Elka Deitsch, “Introduction” in Kabbalah: Mysticism in Jewish life, ed. E. Deitsch (New York: Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, 2003), 5.

[2] Dr. Moshe Idel, “Kabbalah: A Short Introduction with an Emphasis on Its Magical Aspects” in Kabbalah: Mysticism in Jewish life, ed. E. Deitsch (New York: Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, 2003), 12.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Deitsch, “Introduction,” qtd. 5.

[6] Ibid., 7–8.

[7] Ibid., 8.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Idel, “Kabbalah,” 13.

[10] Deitsch, “Introduction,” 6.

[11] “The Talmud describes the fates of four sages who were engaged in Kabbalistic speculation: Simeon be Azia died in the effort, Ben Zoma went insane, and Elisha ben Avuyah forsook rabbinic Judaism altogether; only Rabbi Akiva ‘entered in peace and left in peace.’” Ibid.

[12] Idel, “Kabbalah,” 19.

[13] Ibid., 20.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Yiddish for “holy language” (taught to me as “holy tongue”). As opposed to Mame Loshn—“mother tongue.”

[16] Idel, “Kabbalah,” 20.

[17] Ibid., 22.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Gideon Baha’i, “Jewish Magic in the First and Second Temple Periods” in Angels and demons: Jewish magic through the ages, ed. Filip Vukosavović (Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2010), qtd. 13.

[23] Anxious Hebrew school child that I am, sometimes in the past I would fear writing the name of God. But later I realized, though the English language holds much power over me, it would never be powerful enough for such a word. So now I let it go. But there’s still something to the idea of making a text worthy of the mention, upon which I hope you’ll judge me kindly.

[24] Baha’i, “Jewish Magic in the First and Second Temple Periods,” 13.

[25] Ibid.

[26] So often to italicize a foreign word feels like to turn it into a ghost, but for me the slant here is a bow that acknowledges the English transliteration’s particular inferiority to the real word. Foreign words in this text are italicized if they are not present in the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s amazing how many are.

[27] Baha’i, “Jewish Magic in the First and Second Temple Periods,” 14.

[28] Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition: A study in folk religion (New York: Behrman’s Jewish Book House, 1939), 2.

[29] Ibid., 2–3.

[30] Ibid., 8.

[31] Idel, “Kabbalah,” 14.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid. Assis Rimonim (Essence of Pomegranates) was an abridged version of Pardes Rimonim (Orchard of Pomegranates), which sought to resolve whether the sefirot are a continuation of the Divine Essence or instruments of God for His earthly purposes. The conclusion was “yes, and.” Kabbalah: Mysticism in Jewish life, 34.

[34] Idel, “Kabbalah,” 14.

[35] I wish there were more room in essays for the public admission of guesses, first-person pronouns, and question marks. It would make for a more transparent and sincere workspace. Only fascists have the answers. See Jimmie Durham, “Waiting To Be Interrupted,” Waiting To Be Interrupted, Selected Writings 1993–2012 (Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2012), 95.

[36] Deitsch, “Introduction,” 5.

[37] Through amulets, Kabbalah “penetrated the daily life of Jews throughout history.” Deitsch, “Introduction,” 6–7.

[38] Would it be Jewish if there were not someone arguing against it?

[39] Theodore Schrire, Hebrew amulets: their decipherment and interpretation (London, Routledge & K. Paul, 1966), 21.

[40] David Wachtel, “Amulets” in Kabbalah: Mysticism in Jewish life, ed. E. Deitsch (New York: Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, 2003), 42.

[41]Deitsch, “Introduction,” 7.

[42] Ortal-Paz Saar, “Jewish Magic in Eretz Israel During Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Period” in Angels and demons: Jewish magic through the ages, ed. Filip Vukosavović (Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2010), 16.

[43] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 24.

[44] Deitsch, “Introduction,” 7.

[45] Saar, “Jewish Magic in Eretz Israel During Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Period,” 16–17. Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 24.

[46] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 75.

[47] Saar, “Jewish Magic in Eretz Israel During Late Antiquity and the Byzantine Period,” 17.

[48] Ibid., 19.

[49] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 85.

[50] Ibid., 76.

[51] Ibid., 86.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Not as in “spectacular” but as in “able to be remarked upon.”

[54] Sepher Rezial Hemelach (The book of the angel Rezial), ed. and trans. Steve Savedow (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, ca. 2000), 258–259. “Write the divine scriptures upon an egg. Knead the yolk with good honey. Consume the word from all flesh. You eat the food.” Sepher Rezial Hemelach, 274.

[55] Ibid., 76.

[56] See Peter Schwenger, “Words and the Murder of the Thing,” The Tears of Things (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 21–34.

[57] Idel, “Kabbalah,” 16.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Sepher Rezial Hemelach, 260–1. Idel, “Kabbalah,” 21.

[60] Yuval Harari, “Practical Kabbalah in Israel” in Angels and demons: Jewish magic through the ages, ed. Filip Vukosavović (Jerusalem: Bible Lands Museum, 2010), 28–29.

[61] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 17.

[62] The Ba’al Shem Tov wrote amulets using the power of his name. Idel, “Kabbalah,” 21.

[63] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 17.

[64] Ibid., 18.

[65] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 140.

[66] Mater certa, pater incertus est: The mother is certain, the father is always uncertain. Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 48. Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 140.

[67] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 98.

[68] “And the Lord said unto Moses, take unto thee sweet spices, stacie, and onycha and galbanum.” Ibid., 103.

[69] Marek Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue: Jewish folk medicine in Eastern Europe, trans. Jessica Taylor-Kucia (London: The Littman Library Of Jewish Civilization, in association with Liverpool University Press, 2021), 281.

[70] Making sense of how the two triangles of a Star of David can ward off the evil eye and throw back dangerous glances by each representing an eye. William Gross, “The Khamsa” in Living Khamsa: die Hand zum Glück (Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany: Museum im Prediger, 2004), 68.

[71] Idel, “Kabbalah,” 21. If someone entering a room was viewed as dangerous, one could recite this verse: “As Balaam looked up and saw Israel encamped tribe by tribe, the spirit of God came upon him.” Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 270.

[72] Steve Savedow, “Translator’s Introduction” in Sepher Rezial Hemelach (The book of the angel Rezial), ed. and trans. Steve Savedow (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, ca. 2000), qtd. 11.

[73] Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger, Jews and Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 119.

[74] I can’t find who told me this or what book I read that said it, so you can believe me or not, as you see fit. That’s your risk to take, but I’m glad we can be open about it.

[75] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 248.

[76] Ibid., 246.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid., 246–7.

[79] Ibid., 247.

[80] Ibid., 251.

[81] Ibid., 188.

[82] Ibid., 247–248.

[83] Though one tzaddik recommended a candle, honey, bread, and coffee. Ibid., 235.

[84] Ibid., 247.

[85] Ibid., 224.

[86] Ibid., 225.

[87] Ibid., 224.

[88] Ibid.

[89] Judith Y. Solomon, The Rosh Hodesh Table: Foods at the New Moon (Biblio Press, 1997), 116.

[90] Deatra Cohen and Adam Siegel, Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism: Redis­cov­er­ing the Herbal Tra­di­tions of East­ern Euro­pean Jews (Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 2021), 46.

[91] Ibid., 60.

[92] Ibid., 87.

[93] Ibid., 147.

[94] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 207.

[95] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 225.

[96] Ibid., 244.

[97] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 133.

[98] Ibid., 138.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, qtd. 138.

[101] Ibid., 142.

[102] Sepher Rezial Hemelach, 69.

[103] Gross, “The Khamsa,” qtd. 68.

[104] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 211.

[105] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 143–4.

[106] Ibid., 144.

[107] Gross, “The Khamsa,” 68.

[108] With the day beginning at sundown the preceding evening: Sunday’s seventh hour, Monday’s fifth hour (over which the Sun and Raphael preside), Tuesday’s first hour, Wednesday’s second hour, Thursday’s fourth hour (over which Venus and Anael preside), Friday’s fifth and tenth hours, any time on the following days of the month: 1, 4, 12, 20, 22, 25, 28, evening of 17, morning of 2, 5, 7, 8, 11, 14, 16, 21, 24, 27, 30. Sepher Rezial Hemelach, 145 and 147.

[109] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 145–6.

[110] Ibid., 145.

[111] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 62.

[112] The wedding ceremony itself, of course, is in the evening, outdoors, under the stars. Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 146 and 198.

[113] Ibid., 146.

[114] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 256.

[115] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 147.

[116] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 255.

[117] Ibid.

[118] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 141.

[119] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 212.

[120] Ibid., 255.

[121] Ibid., 215.

[122] Sepher Rezial Hemelach, 256.

[123] Solomon, The Rosh Hodesh Table, 105.

[124] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 184.

[125] Ibid.

[126] Ibid., 185.

[127] Ibid.

[128] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 86.

[129] William Gross, “A collector’s essay” in Kabbalah: Mysticism in Jewish life, ed. E. Deitsch (New York: Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, 2003), 10.

[130] Ibid., 11.

[131] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 257.

[132] Ibid., 238.

[133] Ibid.

[134] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, qtd. 70.

[135] I’m so sorry—these were questions asked with my answers already carved out.

[136] Cohen and Siegel, Ashke­nazi Herbal­ism, 129.

[137] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 210.

[138] Ibid., 234.

[139] Ibid., 199.

[140] Ibid., 200–201.

[141] Ibid., 202.

[142] Ibid., 204.

[143] Ibid.

[144] Ibid., 205.

[145] Ibid.

[146] Ibid.

[147] Ibid., 206.

[148] Ibid., 205.

[149] Ibid.

[150] Ibid.

[151] Ibid., 206–7.

[152] Ibid., 209.

[153] Ibid., 208.

[154] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 61.

[155] Ibid., 64.

[156]Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 209.

[157] Ibid.

[158] See Yaffa Eliach, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[159] Fingernails clippings are burnt in a fire; those sinners who are stuck roaming this earth will search in trash heaps for the clippings they did not burn. Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 236.

[160] Trachtenberg, Jewish magic and superstition, 66.

[161] Ibid., 68.

[162] Ibid.

[163] Ibid., 67.

[164] Ibid.

[165] Ibid., 67–8.

[166] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 29.

[167] During the writing of this piece I battled with tense. Do I speak of these practices as in the past, as many of them are? Or do I speak of them in the present, as many of them are? What of belief? What of demons? I apologize in advance for the decision I have not yet made as I write this. Please know that it all is happening all the time just as much as none of it ever happened.

[168] Tuszewicki, A frog under the tongue, 241.

[169] Ibid., 234.

[170] Ibid.

[171] Ibid., 235.

[172] Ibid., 237.

[173] Schrire, Hebrew amulets, 62.

[174] Atef Abu Saif, “I’m still alive. Gaza is no longer Gaza.,” The Washington Post, 23 October 2023.

[175] Paragraph paraphrased from Casey Carsel, “Unbreaking a horizon,” Documentarian 5 (Fall 2021/Winter 2022).