The Pui Factor

by Ferida Wolff (Cherry Hill, NJ)

Half my family rails against superstition; the other half spits. Pui, pui, pui.

Mention that you are feeling well, thank you, and the spitting starts.

Just say that you had a good day on the stock market and you are bound to get pui, pui, pui.

Announce that your career is on the rise – Pui, pui, pui. Or as my friend says, poo, poo, poo. There are many variations on the spitting theme.  No actual spitting takes place; it is a verbal facsimile. Said three times, it is sure-fire protection against the evil eye, whatever that is, which is then blinded and can’t see you so it can’t do you any harm.

This curious form of behavior was introduced into my family by my grandmother who came from the “old country.” It makes as much sense as any for people who had no real way of protecting themselves from the ravages of religious prejudice. And it gave them a sense of control over an unfathomable universe.

There are other forms of protection in operation against the evil eye. When my sister was born, a red ribbon was tied to her crib so she would be safe when she slept. She never left the house without a red ribbon somewhere on her – in her hair, tied around her wrist, pinned to her underwear. No harm was going to come to her as long as the red bendle was in place!

My sister remembers hunting for the hard candies my mother put under her newborn son’s crib mattress. Mom claimed they kept the demons of nightmares away and brought sweet dreams. My sister said they attracted sweet little bugs. But the baby slept soundly.

My mother never said anything flattering about my sister or me. She said that other people should be the ones to give us a compliment. She didn’t want to give us a kinnehara. And if something good were said, it would be met with a “knayna hara,” meaning without the evil eye. I discovered that it stems from not flaunting your blessings because it might cause pain to someone who is not as fortunate, an honorable notion that morphed into not bringing attention to one’s own fortune, which you never wanted to do, should some evil being hear it and do mischief.

My grandmother, an accomplished seamstress, wouldn’t sew on something a person was wearing unless the person bit on a piece of thread while she was sewing. Traditionally, only a shroud was sewn on a person. Biting on the thread was a way of showing the angel of death that the person was still alive and active.

And should anyone ever spill salt on the table, it was essential to throw a pinch of it over your left shoulder right into the eye of the devil waiting there.

If you say something is good, make sure you knock on wood. This even works when there is no wood available. All you have to do is say the words, “Knock on wood.” For example, “My son is doing well in his new job, knock on wood.” The protection works through intention. Some people have been known to knock on their heads. The symbolism of  “woodenhead” or “blockhead” seems to get translated into the ethereal language with no trouble at all. I’m not sure that this is a Jewish thing but it was so ingrained in my household that I grew up thinking it was.  Like spitting.

Years ago, when we took a family trip to China, my children, husband and I were all confused about a sign that seemed to be everywhere. It was a picture of lips in a circle with a red, diagonal stripe through them. We knew that we were being told not to do something, but what? Our first guess was that it meant no kissing. Perhaps there was a public lewdness law of which we were unaware. Then we thought it might mean no talking. But Chinese cities are not quiet places. The signs were all over including in open spaces like parks and city streets. There was enough conversation going on to tell us that wasn’t the correct interpretation. We finally asked our guide who said it meant no spitting. They meant the real, juicy kind of spitting, not the pui or poo kind. Yet a sign like that might make a good present for the non-spitting relatives.

And there are several. Don’t say, “God bless you” to my father-in-law when he sneezes unless you want an argument. “Superstition!” he sneers. I think a blessing is a fine thing no matter what. So when he’s around, I say it softly.

My husband is a spitter in jest only. He doesn’t take the evil eye protection seriously but saying pui, pui, pui gets the point across. I know that he is aware of the value of something.

I guess I fall somewhere in between. I don’t believe the spitting itself does anything but I do believe the intention is powerful. When a thought is sent out into the universe, it creates energy. So I praise my children a lot for their fine qualities but it is not to the exclusion of others because I say nice things about them, too. I believe in seeing the positive in people whenever possible.

And I celebrate the successes of the people I love, rejoice in their happiness, and applaud their good fortune in whatever form it takes, adding my intention for more of the same. I know that the good things in life come from hard work and connections and courage.

My mother, may she rest in peace, would have loved her great grandson, my sister’s first grandchild, but would not have praised him. My sister calls him the cutest baby in the world. I do, too. Knowing the philosophy of his parents, both rabbis, I am sure they will help him to understand that the beauty of a compassionate soul is more important than physical beauty and that gratitude is greater protection against the vicissitudes of life than all the salt and spit and wood can provide.

And yet, there is something endearing about the pui factor. Maybe it is the amusement that it engenders when it is invoked.

Then again, maybe it’s like chicken soup. It couldn’t hurt.

Ferida Wolff’s newest book of essays, Missed Perceptions: Challenge Your Thoughts Change Your Thinking, is available from Pranava Books, an imprint of Andborough Publishing, a publisher based in North Carolina.

Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Moment Magazine, Midstream, and Woman’s World, among other periodicals. She’s a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, HCI Ultimate series, and Chocolate For a Teen’s Dreams, as well as the author of Listening Outside Listening Inside and The Adventures of Swamp Woman: Menopause Essays on the Edge, and seventeen books for children. She’s written elsewhere online at www.grandparents.com and www.seniorwomen.com. You can find out more about her work at www.feridawolff.com.

This story originally appeared in Midstream in July/August 2007. It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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1 Comment

Filed under American Jewry, Family history

One response to “The Pui Factor

  1. Dana

    My Mother would have me put thread in my mouth when she would sew something that I was wearing too. Bad luck to put shoes on top of the bed so no shoes on the bed, & don’t walk over anyone (like if you were layin’ on the floor watching tv & your sister stepped over you she would have to step back over & go around. When a daughter began menstruation for the first time Mother would give a little slap in the face supposed to be good luck.

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