Last week when I was writing about the lack of diversity I experienced as a child I recalled a different kind of experience, one that opened my eyes to what seemingly different cultures had in common.
When my first child was born, I was living with my parents back in the Bronx where I had grown up. Not a lot had changed, but there were new Italian neighbors across the hall and they too had a grown daughter living with them. She was due to give birth shortly after me and we became friends.
When I came home from the hospital my mother’s aunt, who lived across the street, told me I could not put my daughter in her crib without first putting a red ribbon, a “kenahora,” on it. I had heard this Yiddish expression, kenahora, often and vaguely understood it to mean something like “when things are too good don’t tempt fate because they could get bad.” (Yiddish was the language my older relatives spoke, and my parents used when they didn’t want the children to understand something). I dutifully tied the ribbon.
A few weeks later when I went to see my neighbor’s new daughter, one of the first things I saw was a red ribbon on her crib. “Oh,” I said, “Has my aunt been here?” “No,” she replied, “My aunt. The ribbon is to ward off the evil eye.”
In researching this post, I learned that the expression kenahora is actually a combination of three words, kein, the Yiddish word for no, ayin, the Hebrew word for eye, and hara, Hebrew for evil. So in fact our great aunts, one from Russia and one from Italy, had exactly the same superstition and the same symbol!
There are no aunts from the old country left in my family, but I made my daughter put a red ribbon on my granddaughter’s crib.