Paridura / Birth Part II: Protecting New Life
Although Sephardic women were not concerned that the kortar fashadura specifically would encourage evil spirits, the prevalence of folk practices surrounding pregnancy and birth suggests that Sepharadim were still apprehensive about danyadores or shedim—evil spirits or demons. There was nothing unusual about belief in evil spirits: Jewish communities around the world, Ashkenazim and Sepharadim alike, and many other communities—Christians, Muslims, and others—embraced a vast and elaborate world of folk practices to ward off the “evil eye.”
Different communities had their own ways of keeping the evil spirits at bay—both during pregnancy and once the child was born. Spitting on or near a baby, followed by a short expression such as “poo poo!” is perhaps the most universal across cultures. Among Sephardic Jews, in Salonica, for example, expecting mothers often relied on older women who were adept at mixing potions and reciting incantations to keep them safe during their pregnancies. Similarly, in Gallipoli, a sprig of rue was placed next to a pregnant woman’s head to protect her from the evil eye.
Kame'ot: Amulets to ward off the evil eye
One of the most common techniques was the use of kame’ot (amulets). If the songs as an oral practice were the women’s domain, the kame’ot, part of written culture, were the man’s domain.
Throughout the Ottoman world, rabbis engaged in a variety of practices relating to kame’ot. In one tradition, scribes would write out shadayim—two paper kame’ot inscribed with the names of angels and that of the demon Lilith, who was believed to be notorious for harming newborns. The mother would pin one of the shadayim to herself and the other onto her baby to protect themselves from Lilith. Since Lilith purportedly had wings, many times the keme’ot would be fashioned with wing shapes, as well.
While many kame’ot were written in traditional Hebrew block letters, or meruba, Sepharadim also wrote them in soletreo—a Sephardic Hebrew cursive script. Avraham Maimon, who came from Tekirdag (a town near Istanbul) to Seattle in 1924 to serve as a rabbi, preserved several kame’ot in various scripts; it remains unclear whether he himself composed them.
Ultimately, however, it seems that Rabbi Maimon disregarded the harmful spirits of the old world when he immigrated to the United States: His son Bension recalls Rabbi Maimon saying, “As far as Seattle is concerned, we shouldn’t worry, because these [demons] didn’t cross the Atlantic Ocean.”
Kame'ot in Salonica
In Salonica and other towns in the Ottoman Empire, in contrast, one of the practices involved scribes composing kame’ot with more elaborate mystical formulas that invoked the names of angels, called upon to protect the newborn. Written on long, rectangular pieces of parchment or fabric, and then folded up into a small triangle package—like a savory Sephardic pastry known as a fila—the kame’a would accompany the newborn wherever he or she went, including into adulthood. The kame’a would sometimes be sewn shut, attached to a string, and worn around the neck, or slipped into a wallet.
In his engaging memoir, one of the great Ladino journalists and novelists of the twentieth century, Elia Carmona, from Istanbul, attributed his professional success and fame to the kame’a he carried with him since birth and which, he believed, enabled him to overcome all the obstacles life threw at him.
Professor Devin Naar’s great-grandfather, Rabbi Benjamin Naar, a practitioner of kabbala, composed kame’ot (like the one pictured left) in the Salonican fashion both in his native city and even after he immigrated to the United States with his family in 1924. Unlike for Rabbi Maimon and the Seattle community, for Rabbi Naar and his communities in New York and New Jersey, the practice of composing kame’ot continued for another generation—even into the immediate post-World War II years. Some of his descendants and other community members still possess their kame’ot today.
From this perspective, it would seem that demons may have indeed crossed the Atlantic Ocean, but perhaps they did not succeed in making the train ride all the way to the Pacific Northwest.
Why study folk practices?
All too often, scholars and Jewish community leaders denigrate folk practices such as kame’ot in seeking to distance themselves from “superstition.” But with careful attention, these practices, which formed an integral part of their world, provide insights into individual and collective concerns, and the various methods they developed to address them and soothe their anxieties.
Especially in the absence of modern medicine, pregnancy was dangerous and often much more debilitating than it is today. Even into the early 20th century, some cities with sizeable populations in the Ottoman Empire did not have electricity. Perhaps against this backdrop the danyadores can be seen as a manifestation of the fears that accompanied daily life in a world without the modern technologies we enjoy today—especially during pregnancy, when illness and disease could have disastrous consequences. That communities chose to acknowledge the tenuous nature of this life cycle event with carefully written, wearable kame’ot may illustrate a certain value placed on new life and the wish to protect it at all costs.
At the same time, the kortar fashadura, filled with vitality, anticipation, and music, existed in spite of these potential dangers. The reality of the world in which Ottoman Sepharadim lived therefore also imbues their celebratory Ladino songs with tangible optimism. Simultaneously, these two practices of celebration and protection, of the women’s domain and the men’s, represent a portion of the psychological underpinnings that help us understand the Sephardic world view.