Waving Chickens and Tehillim for Strangers: Jewish Folk Religion Hits Long Island Listserve

Full disclosure: I love folk religion. Or at least love to learn about it. My family (my mother’s, anyway) had a lot of it. There were family stories about Eliyah’s cup being emptied miraculously at Aunt Annie’s home overnight the year Uncle Morris died. And the same Aunt Annie told me how, if you were evil in this world, you came back reincarnated as a cow or farm animal [I never figured out how a Hindu belief made it to a Ukrainian town].

And even in modern times, my family is not immune: my daughter’s recitation of a prayer invoking the name of Rabbi Meir ba’al Ha-Nes [the miracle worker] apparently enabled her to find her lost cell phone. I tried the same thing for my lost gold chai necklace, actually invoking his memory at his gravesite in Tiberias, Israel. I had thought it didn’t work, but the next week found a similar gold chai at Zakkai Brothers on Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, which I purchased. Proving that not only was Rabbi Meir a miracle worker, but was concerned with supporting the Israeli economy.
Jewish folk religion was not treated well in the United States, though. Most elements of 20th century Judaism — Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Modern Orthodox — were interested in promoting rationalism with Judaism. In this, they were following teachings of Maimonides, the Lithuanian yeshiva world, and the German Jewish intellectual tradition.

As a people, we gladly followed, consciously or unconsciously, Mordecai Kaplan’s promotion of a “Judaism without Supernaturalism”. We abandoned amulets in favor of artistic ritual items and gave tzedaka instead of waving chickens over our heads before Yom Kippur. Those who clung to ancient folk religion were viewed by us college educated folks as poor, unsophisticated Jews. Even within the yeshiva from which I was ordained, the phrase tehillim zuger [reader of Psalms] was used to refer to [usually older] Jews [frequently women] who used the readings of Psalms as a way into spirituality because they were not educated enough to study Talmud, lead the community, or find other higher level paths to a meaningful participation in Judaism.

Fast forward to 2009. We are more sophisticated than we dreamed of even 20 years ago. Technology offers us new networks and new ways of sharing knowledge. So, of course, that means that outdated folks beliefs fall even further by the wayside, right? Wrong! Instead, new technologies are now allowing for a rebirth of previously abandoned practices, and their dissemination to sophisticates in suburbia.

The contemporary Jewish community listserve has become the new way to call people to old ways. Some examples from my Long Island shtetl’s Jewish listserve in recent months:
  • Frequent calls go out for “emergency Tehillim” to be said on behalf of sick people that nobody in the community even knows. Tehillim are an interesting phenomenon. A recent d’var Torah in the synagogue I attend suggested that Psalms are read as a way of moving people to live better. But the “emergency Tehillim” seem to be more about what anthropologists refer to as magical thinking.
  • Segullah challah is on the rise in our area. No, I had no idea what it meant, either. A person traditionally takes a small amount of dough before baking, as a remembrance of the time in which such dough was given as a tax of sorts to support to priestly class. But apparently you can make it a segullah [special treasure], by having in mind a certain person who needs healing or whatnot. Magic bread if you will.
  • The chickens are back. Yes, there are folks in our ‘hood who bring out the live chickens to wave around their heads, chanting “this is my atonement…” between the high holidays. I admit to having looked for an empty KFC bucket to wave over my head.
  • In a truly bizarre posting, we are implored to read “emergency Tehillim” on behalf of some Israeli young adults who were arrested in Japan for smuggling illegal drugs into the country. Whatever.
I’m not sure what to do with this trend, but it’s really messing up my email, and has even impacted synagogue services. Now, I get emergency Tehillim requests jamming up my Blackberry. And, with the additional requests for mi she-berach prayers on behalf of sick people whose names have been emailed to everyone in the country, some of my co-congregants literally walk up to the gabbai in our synagogue with stacks of printed emails, insisting that each of the names that have been sent to them must be included in the prayer [apparently, there is a new folk belief that says that there is a tipping point that God has for the sick, based on the number 0f people around the world saying the exact same prayer for the exact same person].

So here’s my proposal: It is time to clean up the listserves. They began as a convenience: to tell us about community events, to allow those without transportation to beg rides [inexplicably, usually to Monsey or Teaneck], to provide a way for people to give away or sell extra tickets to Mets games. I’m good with that. Let’s give the lists back to the people, and create new lists that can take the folk religion postings and move them to lists for those who want them.

I’ll probably end up subscribing to both — I’ll need the folk religion list to find new sources of amulets, but at least my community listserve won’t be diverted from its original purpose of building community.

One response

  1. Folk religion is always fascinating and it also does it's part to strengthen communities by creating an opportunity to gather in community for the folk ritual in question. Not a bad thing. . . .And you know. . . it is always a trip to find out who practices the different folk rituals.


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