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[Pages 486-480]

Chapter 8:

Superstitions, Remedies and Cures

Between the day and the night there is a time and a place that is no longer day but not yet night. Objects and articles melt away, become blurred, lose their distinct outlines as images are erased by the soft shadows and fade away like smoke.

In the boundary between this world and the next, the life of the town enters a land of imagination and dreams, of unnatural images and visions.

Between this world and the next, sinful souls who can't come to rest, flourish. They take on the form of dogs, cats, frogs, and other creatures that wander for many days in the waste of deserts, in fields and forest until, as dybbuks, they invade a person's body.

Each night the dead come to dip in the Mikveh; they pray in the synagogue. The souls of those sentenced to hanging find no peace. They weep at night, arousing storm winds that uproot trees and blow the roofs off the huts. After a gentile neighbor dies, one can hear people saying, “Let him hover over field and forest and barren deserts, and not harm the Jews.” Tsitsiot (fringes) are then often counted. Women, exempt from this commandment, do not leave the house without an apron.

The land of twilight, dreams, superstitions, demons, ghosts, and evil spirits is located within the town itself. Its boundaries pass among the houses and among the people. In midday it sometimes happens that a person strays from the straight and narrow path and enters this mysterious kingdom.

Is there anyone among the inhabitants of this city who has not been there for a short stay or a long one?

The town chronicles tell of two witches who used to fly to Shidlova on chicken livers, scattering seeds of wheat on the fields and on the backs of sheep belonging to the “authorities”. This was done so that the fields would be stricken with blight and the flocks perish.

The two witches admitted to these deeds, and also that Asmodeus, the demon, dressed as a hunter, had come to visit them. When the judges of the city heard this, they sentenced the witches to death by burning. The sentence was carried out in the Rosegard.

There are creatures that bring good tidings. In contrast, there are creatures that are to be avoided. It is a mitzvah to kill a spider for it was they who brought fire in their mouths to burn down the Temple.

Swallows are nice birds. The swallows brought water in their beaks to put out the fire that was raging in the Temple. Even today the swallows fly low and herald the coming rain. If here or there one sees a spider in its web, one should tear the cobweb and trample the spider. One should not prevent the swallows from building their nests in the top corners of the window because swallows bring good luck.

If a bird taps at the window with its beak, it is bearing good tidings. It is a sign that a letter with good news will soon arrive. If a black crow caws on the roof, a disaster will befall the house. If a cat washes itself in front of a door, guests are coming. If at noon, a rooster stands on top of a fence in the middle of the yard, spreads its wings and crows coo-coo-ri-coo, good weather is due. If all of a sudden, a frog appears in front of the door, it signifies a curse. If one clearly sees the movements of its neck, it's a sign that it is cursing and one must say, “Salt in your eyes, pepper in your nose.” If dogs howl at night, the Angel of Death is in town.

If the right hand itches, one will count money. If your ear is burning, someone is remembering you. If there is a ringing in your ears, somebody is talking about you: right ear-good things, left-bad. If a fire flares up in the kitchen, they are discussing you in heaven. Then one says, “would that they would say good of me.” If one sneezes, one must say, “G-d bless you,” and pull one's left ear three times and recite “G-d, I am awaiting your succor.” Each time one must begin the verse with a different word. If some one yawns, it's a sign that the “evil eye” has affected him.

If a person falls down all of a sudden, and doesn't feel well, the first suspect is the “evil eye.” One should rush to the victim's aid with an incantation against the “evil eye.” That is the first thing that should be done. If the victim of the “evil eye” is the first-born (and especially the first-born of a first-born) and he yawns, it is a sign that he was gravely stricken and that the yawn succeeded in overcoming the effect. Red ribbons used to be tied on to the hands of small children in order to protect them from the “evil eye.”

If the “evil eye” has stricken a child and frightened it, the mother licks his eyes with her tongue, makes him cough and spits three times in each direction with a hurried incantation to cancel the power of the “evil eye.” If all this does not help, people will pour hot wax over a twist of thin rods held over a bowl of cold water. The wax figure formed in the water is the reason for the fear.

If a woman has difficulty giving birth, the remedy is to remove all the rings from her fingers as well as her lockets and bracelets and to open the drawers and the doors in the house. If this does not help, one should place a prayer booklet and a knife under the pillow at the head of the bed.

When the child has been safely born and it is a boy, until the brith (circumcision), the heder pupils come every day at twilight and recite “Shema” (daily prayer proclaiming belief in the unity of G-d). If a girl is born, pages of “The Song of Degrees” are hung over the doors and windows to protect the newborn. In order to increase the effect of “Hear Oh Israel” (“Shema”), the new mother is guarded and not left alone in the room until the day of the brith, just as the bride and groom are guarded on their wedding night.

In the city there were female “mayvinim” who knew in advance whether the newborn would be a girl or a boy. If the pregnant woman complained of heartburn, a daughter would be born. The hairs on the head of the infant in its mother's womb are ablaze. The long hairs of a girl reach the mother's heart.

An infant who ate a lot and screamed a lot would be placed in a cupboard full of food. If the infant did not want to suck at his mother's breast, the young mother would be questioned as to what she had once craved during her pregnancy. If she recalled that once, upon passing near the house of Mindel the Baker, she had a desire for fresh, black bread, two men would rush like young lions to the Cossack regiment to bring back “Fonia” rye bread and she would hold it against her breasts. The infant would smell the bread and begin to suck. The same was true for onions, herring, sour pickles, and other foods.

Until they were three years old, boys had to wear dresses and pinafores just as the girls did. The boys' hair was cut for the first time only when they had reached the age of three.

The grandsons of Yehiel Galant and Motel Domb, and the son of Ya'akov-Herzl were dressed in white until the day of their bar-mitzvah. Even their shoes were white. In these families the boys usually died when they were small and the parents thus hoped to outwit the Angel of Death.

The townspeople did not all act in this manner. There were Jews who meticulously carried out the religious rites and yet did not beat “kapores” since they were convinced that this custom held no logic. Only rarely, however, did a Jewish mother dare to sew a button on her son's garment without previously giving him a thread to chew on so that, G-d forbid, her own hands would not harm the child's brain.

There were no large rivers in Mlawa. Its one brook was both narrow and shallow. At many points it could be crossed just by taking one big step. After heavy rains the stream used to flood the lower sections of Warsaw and Potters Streets as well as Nahman Figot's yard. The stream did not demand a yearly sacrifice as did many other streams and rivers. Melobenski's and Yachet's water holes and the muddy pool next to the brick factory were treacherous. Each year they claimed a victim. If someone drowned while bathing, people would come there with long iron poles to search for the body. To aid in their search, they would throw a loaf of bread, on top of which was a burning candle, into the pool next to the brick factory.

The people's attitude to customs and superstitions can be illustrated by the story of the old woman who fainted on her way to the “Selihot” prayers (recited on days of fast or trouble, and especially during Elul and the first days of Tishri, until the Day of Atonement). When she was revived, a large cross was found around her neck. As the old woman came to and found people puzzling over the cross, she calmly said: “So many people believe in the cross, perhaps it too is G-d.”

There was a similar attitude towards remedies. When people were sick, they were willing to accept any advice, any “old wives'” remedy. Sometimes, in some faraway forest, in a remote village, there would be a gentile shepherd who performed miracles, healing the sick by peering into their eyes or by touching them. Jewish men and women from all levels of society would make pilgrimages to the miracle worker to seek a cure for their ailments.

A sure method was to recite chapters from the Book of Psalms. The most excellent doctor, renowned for his great ability to heal, could not arouse such hope, expectations and immense faith as the little Book of Psalms.

If the patient's condition worsened, more Psalms would be read. In the heders, in the synagogue and in the Hassidic houses of worship, notes, on which were written the name of the patient and his mother, were placed before the reader's stand next to the Ark and a “mi shebirech” (blessing) would be recited. Reb Tuvia, Reb Itchkeh, and Reb Haim-Shmayah would be asked to mention the patient's name. The chapters of Psalms served as a cure for many Jewish troubles, communal and personal. And they were also useful in times of illness. “I Tehilim nie pomoze” ('even Tehilim won't help - Polish) meant: the situation has worsened. One would search for new rememdies, give the patient an additional name, generally “Alter”, “Haim”, “Nathan”, collect alms for the “days.” “Tea and Tehilim, if they don't help, certainly will do no harm, said the slightly enlightened. Most of the Jews were of the opinion that reciting Psalms did help.

This life principle encouraged the appearance of “mayvinim” givers of advice, and quacks. It was common knowledge that a cut finger or a bleeding wound could be cured by spider webs, by attaching a piece of soft bread to the wound. For any swelling or bruise one would apply chewed-up leaves from a potted plant common in Jewish homes. A radical remedy was to disqualify and scorn the bruise and make it loathsome by dressings of urine, human feces, or cow manure. Locksmiths cured wounds with iron filings, carpenters and coach-builders with tar, and blacksmiths would touch the wound with a red-hot iron, or axle grease.

Colds were cured with scorched feathers, by inhaling the smoke from scorched hair, the scorched horn of a cow or the smoke from scorched hooves. Warts would be cured by pouring warm pigeon blood over them, by placing peas behind a stone, throwing one pea into a deep well for each wart.

Yosef Radak used to make up ointments for all kinds of wounds, open and closed: ointments for treating sores so that they should swell and burst open, for faruncles, men's abscesses and those of nursing mothers.

Rifka-Rachel, Wolf Breindel's wife, cooked jams, fermented black berries, cherries, and red forest berries for the entire town as remedies against bellyaches and to promote sweating.

Yosef Zurominer and other Jews provided aid for conscripts: they would chop off fingers, pull out teeth, produce “hernias,” supply salves that caused the entire body to look as though it had been afflicted with boils, and let the boys sniff gun-powder, which raised the body's temperature and induced coughing.

Healing the body started off with haphazard remedies: diarrhetic tea, enemas, medicines for sweating, cupping, attaching leaches and sometimes, also by letting blood. If all these measures did not help, the feltscher (medic), a popular figure in town, was summoned. With him they spoke Yiddish. In detail and at length they where the pain was and what hurt. Neighbors and members of the family made an effort to explain and advise as to the course of treatment. The feltscher would listen with much patience to all the suggestions. They did not offend his pride. He would decide whether a doctor should be called and which one. And in the end, he would be asked whether it was indeed necessary to follow all the doctor's orders.

The most veteran feltscher in town was Leyzer (Fried) who healed “according to the book” I which were written all the nostrums and remedies. Leyzer's son was the conductor of the Cossack regiment orchestra in Mlawa. He was the only Jew to wear Cossack trousers. He was distinguished for yet another virtue: he always fathered twins or triplets. Single children were not his specialty. In later years, the triplets played at a concert of the Philharmonic Orchestra in Warsaw.

The most famous feltscher was Tzudek the Nurse, or just plain, Tzudek. “We must call Tzudek. Where does Tzudek live?” The name Tzudek was coupled with his profession and many Mlawians believed that the world for feltscher in Yiddish was Tzudek.

Opposite Havah Velvol's house on Warsaw Street and later, on a house in Plock Street, hung three brass plates to that this was Tzudek's residence. He was stumpy with a neat blond beard which grew quite sparsely on his transparent face. He wore a short jacket and a stiff, black hat. Under one arm was a box of cupping glasses that looked like a book of Gemarah, in his other hand, a leather purse like that of Dr. Makowski. This emissary of the angel Raphael, walked with light tread about the streets and alleys to visit the sick. The greater the fear of the disease, the more Tzudek allayed the family's apprehensions and calmed them with his warm hand, quiet words, and simplicity. Both Jews and gentiles held him in great esteem. All the pharmacies accepted his prescriptions. He used to attach leeches and cupping glasses, extract teeth, let blood, give injections, anoint the throat, and examine the patient with a stethoscope just like the doctor's. Tzudek's expertise was greatly respected. It was known to all that he did not over rate himself and, if necessary, would advise to see a doctor.

Tzudek was blessed with a long life. People got used to him as to a nearby landscape such as the city clock, the pump on Warsaw Street, the little bridge, as to all the long-standing city landmarks. The little bridge on Warsaw Street was named “Tzudek's bridge,” “Tzudek's bone.”

Still in Tzudek's lifetime, his son Nathan inherited his father's role. He was held I respect even though they nicknamed him “professor.”

There was a time when there was yet another Jewish feltscher in Mlawa: Frankensztein, Simha Nitzkin's son in law. After he passed away, an emaciated, quick and nimble fellow appeared in town who looked like a goy. He was clean shaven and had a long Gentile mustache. Though Jewish, he spoke only Polish. The name of the new feltscher, just arrived from Warsaw, was Tissabov. The Jews in town called him Tisha Be'av (Ninth of Ab, a fast in memory of the destruction of the Temple), instead.

The doctor Yuzef Makowski, a native Mlawian, was the town's leading medical authority. He was privileged in that, in his case, the adage “a prophet is without honor in his own country” did not hold true.

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