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The Five Names of Beatrice Kaye…(Part Two): Dybbuks and Other Superstitions

December 24, 2018


Up on the roof at 325 Ocean Ave, Brooklyn NY. Surrounding Grandma Sarah Magazine is my mother, her sister, Aunt Mal, sisters-in-law, Pearl, Thelma and Rae. Seated on the right, late cousin Joel Magazine. I am there too, sort of, as my mother (on the far left) is pregnant with me. Note the hairdos, stylish for the time.

1. Dybbuks (pronounced dubbicks)

A flashback. Early 1990s.

I  am not sure of the year, but believe it was 1992, 1993. “Uncle Sam,” Samuel Stone, Aunt Mal’s husband has just died. (There will be more on Uncle Sam in a later segment). We, the family, are at Aunt Mal’s one bedroom, rent control, apartment in Elmhurst, Queens not far from where the Long Island Expressway intersects with Queens Blvd. Many of the other tenants in the building are Ecuadorian and Venezuelan. They treated Aunt Mal, then in her mid 80s with respect and warmth.

The woman who collects the rent for the property management company, and has done so for thirty years, is Aunt Mal’s friend. She is also Henry Kissinger’s sister. “How could such a nice woman have such a son-of-a-bitch as a brother?” she wonders. I don’t know; suppose it is one of life’s great mysteries. A life-long Democrat who lived to be a shade shy of 100, Aunt Mal rarely curses but when she does she says the term “son of a bitch” with great feeling, her teeth grit. I have only heard her refer to two others in such a manner, both presidents of the United States – Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. One of my great private joys was to hear her curse them out. It pleased me immensely.

Anyhow Uncle Sam is dead.

He died in the special chair Aunt Mal got him to ease his last years. As Aunt Mal tells it, the night before he died, he turned to her and said, “We had a wonderful life despite everything, didn’t we?” Then he closed his eyes never to open them again. Aunt Mal, who became one of NYC’s most famed electrolysists, went through pretty much her entire savings paying Uncle Sam’s medical bills his last ten years. She also went blind from a half century of such detailed work. When she would die fifteen years later, she had no assets, none, going back to the earth as she first came in 1908, poor as a synagogue mouse.

So family and friends are gathered at the Elmhurst apartment. I have flown in from Denver. From Uncle Sam I inherit the three volumes of Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and the Green’s eight volume History of the English People both well-worn, along with an Omega watch, one of his few prized material possessions.  I would read the books several times over and wear that watch, repeatedly have it repaired until about a year ago. Unable to part with it at first, I wore it for another few months, broken as it was, before finally dumping it in the garbage. I loved my Uncle Sam and he loved me.

So there we are, Cousins Joan and Murray Stroeber are in from New Jersey, Sarabelle and Ben are there from East Hampton, Laurie, Bob Perez and the kids in from Manhattan. I don’t remember all the rest but the apartment was full. A few of Aunt Mal’s Ecuadorian neighbors stopped by to pay their respects. In the bathroom and bedroom the windows are covered with white sheets. I am about to remove the one in the bathroom remembering what it’s all about: dybbuks. Of course. I suggest to Aunt Mal and Mom that maybe, maybe that after a day or so, the sheets can be taken down. But they say no and insist that the sheets remain.

Neiman River

The Neiman River which passes through both Grodno and Prienai (which the Jewish population referred to as “Pren” – thus “Prensky”) on its way north and west, emptying into the Baltic Sea. As Aunt Mal told it, our grandfather, Julius Magaziner comes from a long line of rabbis and fisherman who lived along the banks of the Neiman

Dybbuks are dangerous.

Their mother, my grandmother, Sarah Magaziner, insisted that the mirrors had to be covered for a week during the mourning period, known in Yiddish as “sitting Shiva.” Grandmother Sarah, in turn, had learned in the power of dybbuks from the great and long Russian-Polish-Jewish tradition of “the Pale” from which she descended the region of Eastern Europe that includes parts of Poland, the Baltic States (Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia), Belarus, Ukraine).

So what are dybbuks?

They are the spirits of the dead released from the body when someone Jewish dies. And dreading death, these spirits very much want to return to a living being, particularly a family member to retain some modicum of life. A dybbuk is “a restless soul, wandering between heaven and earth which manifests itself in its victim’s body, causing involuntary thoughts and actions.” Between the time that a person dies and their bodies are laid in the ground, the dybbuk escapes from the dead body and hides itself in mirrors.

Dybbuks, it is said, hide in mirrors waiting for an innocent and uneducated narcissistic soul, a young girl perhaps although it could be anyone of any age, to spend a bit too much time taking the pleasure to reflect on their own physical appearance, their image in a mirror. This gives the dybbuk an opportunity to jump the gap between the living and the dead and to penetrate the being and soul of its victim in its fight to stay alive in another’s body.

Placing a white sheet in front of a mirror for a week prevents the dybbuk from “jumping the gap” and protects would be victims. After a week, the dybbuk tires of waiting, runs out of gas, so to speak and evaporates and then “the all clear” sign is given, and the sheet can be removed and the people involved can spend as much or as little time looking at reflection as modesty and/or ego demand.

Exorcism – medieval psychological torture.

If they can, dybbuks will jump the gap from the mirror into the body of its victim through the eyes. If the dybbuk succeeds, the victim is “possessed.” “A dybbuk is actually a ghost that sticks around after death to possess the body of the living for malevolent purposes. Historically dybbuks were often associated with cases of hysteria or even schizophrenia. As I came to understand it, rabbis have both the skill and power to exorcise dybbuks ridding a person of these restless spirits, but it is a rather complex process.

In other words – dybbuks are yet another form of non-existent superstitious nonsense, a part of medieval Jewish mythology. They don’t exist, never did, never will. Just a bunch of rubbish. But tell that to my mother and aunt, one generation away from their Russia-Polish Jewish heritage along the Neiman River flowing north into the Baltic Sea would be useless, and disrespectful to boot.  Their fear of dybbuks was long ago deeply imprinted in their psyche. It is not unlike a Catholic’s paralyzing fear of going to hell.

My younger sister Laurie would have to get her rabbi – a very decent man – to talk to them and he does. It is only after the rabbi explains that the custom of covering mirrors (and in some cases windows), while an admirable Jewish tradition, is no longer needed that Aunt Mal would even consider removing the sheets. Until reassured by a rabbi, Aunt Mal kept all the mirror’s in the house covered. She and my mother believe the rabbi (but of course not me), but felt uneasy all the same. A few days after the discussion, reluctantly, mother and Aunt Mal remove the sheets from the mirrors.

1933 - Flatbush

1933 – Beatrice, Sarah and “Molly” (who would change her name to Malvina) Magazine. Flatbush (Ave. K and Nostrand Ave) Brooklyn. In the small back yard behind the one room the Magaziner children grew up. Mom is 15 in this photo, Aunt Mal, on the right, 25.

2. How Great Grandmother Rebecca Wishejsky Became Pregnant With Grandmother Sarah Magaziner

I spoke to my other sister, Sarabelle, by phone a few days ago. She had some questions about our common past and how I responded to the Vietnam War, which like so many young Americans in those days, I opposed as soon as I had a sense of what it was all about. But soon the subject changed to stories handed down, first to our grandmother Sarah by her mother, Rebecca Wishejsky, our great-grandmother and later told again by our mother and Aunt Mal to my sisters and me. I would guess, that my cousins heard this and other like stories. It is a part and parcel of the Magaziner heritage. How historically accurate these stories are is impossible to verify other than to note that stories like this were quite common.

I had forgotten the story that my sister related and as she detailed it, I think – one is never certain of these things – that a memory of it came back to me. Even as a boy, I had a skepticism for all superstition, Jewish or otherwise that has only increased substantially with age. I vaguely recall – it was Aunt Mal I believe – telling us the story that Sarabelle recently related on the phone. It is a part and parcel of “the world of dybbuks”

The woman who would become Sarah Magaziner was born Sarah Wishejsky, daughter of a Bialystok (now in eastern Poland) rabbi. But prior to Sarah’s birth, great-grandmother Rebecca, was having difficulty conceiving. Fearing that she would never have children, Rebecca Wishejsky went to see a gypsy psychic along with two other friends in the same situation. These were the days before artificial insemination so taking the advice of a psychic, the 19th century Eastern European version of a gynecologist, was about as good a chance a woman had for getting pregnant.

As the story goes, related to Aunt Mal by grandmother Sarah, related to Sarabelle, Laurie and me by Aunt Mal, long forgotten by me until Sarabelle refreshed my memory of it, after looking at their palms and taking their money, the psychic gave great-grandmother Rebecca’s two friends the bad news: they would remain sterile; there would be no children. Great grandmother Rebecca, however, had certain possibilities, that is if she followed the psychic’s directions down to the last detail. If the ritual was respected, Great grandmother Rebecca would give birth to two daughters, (which eventually she did). As a part of the sales package, Rebecca was told to name the first daughter Sarah, the second Rebecca (which she also did).

The directions were very specific.

On leaving the psychic’s place, Great grandmother Rebecca was to steal two blankets off of a clothe line, take them home and wrap herself in them. Very importantly she was then ordered to have “relations”, which I guess meant the obvious, with her husband the good Rabbi Wishejsky that very night! Over the next few days she was to wrap herself in the blankets over the next few days. There were other details that I can’t remember. Still, the result was what the psychic had predicted. Rebecca did give birth to two daughters, the older one was named Sarah, our maternal grandmother, and her younger sister, Rebecca, a great-aunt that I know virtually nothing about.

Final note: Over time I have become an unrepentant materialist. I became an atheist at the age of thirteen, not long after being bar mitzvahed. Never looked back, never will. With very few exceptions I have a rather low estimate of “men or women of the cloth,” regardless of what cloth it is that they are wearing. I judge them and I do that by how they treat their fellow humans and the rest of all living things.

Yet I have spent most of my adult life working with deeply religious people and do so with no difficulty. The respect and admiration I feel for them is reciprocated even if we don’t ever verbalize it. As for the superstitions written about above, from any kind of scientific, materialist perspective they are nonsense, nothing more than drivel really and yet, in a certain way I respect them, as they were a part of a whole world view, a way of dealing with life, with nature, with death that gave people frameworks for meaning. The seriousness with which people absorbed such views suggests a willingness, a desire to live life well, and with meaning, for others. There are patterns that must be followed, “a path” so to speak.

They were doing their best. Thinking about the symbolic meaning of dybbuks…the ritual is a way for the living, symbolically at least to separate themselves from the dead, dear ones whom they would like to cling to but are gone. The whole dybbuk ritual helps the living “move on,” – to begin to separate themselves emotionally from a loved one who has passed and is no longer. As such, it serves a useful, humane purpose.


Part One

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Michele Zanghi permalink
    December 25, 2018 5:34 pm

    Wonder look back on your family’s history. Keep them coming. A beautiful heartfelt read.

    • December 25, 2018 6:58 pm

      Thanks Michele…was told you put together a Christmas Eve dinner second to none… Hoping for your healthy grandchild…another Zack I am told. Warm greetings from Colorado. There will be a “Part Three”…Robbie.


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