Breaking Bread

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For my entire life, my family — both immediate and extended — has been obsessed with my wearing slippers indoors. Anytime we visited an aunt, a cousin, a great-uncle, we had to take off our shoes, and  then the woman of the house would always shove a pair of too-small or too-large slippers into our hands. It wasn’t that unusual, however unnecessary it felt to me at the time, that a host be worried about our feet being cold or our shoes dirtying up the floor. However, I recently found out that this slipper obsession actually has nothing to do with feet or floors — in fact, it is yet another one of many strange Russian superstitions. This one is particularly extreme: akin to the American superstition of stepping on a crack (and breaking your mother’s back), if a guest doesn’t wear slippers in your home, it means your mother will die. Yes, that’s right. Die. Because some guy wanted to walk around in his socks.

Clearly, Russians are a very superstitious people. There are so many superstitions it’s hard to even keep track. According to them, you can’t celebrate anything in advance — if you toast a birthday or wedding even one day before it happens, it’s cursed. If you sit at the corner edge of a table — that’s seven years that you will not get engaged or married (because of this, kids are generally seated at the corners). If you do manage to get engaged, you mustn’t change a wedding date after you’ve already picked one. If you do, your marriage is cursed. You can’t tell someone “goodbye” before they go on a trip or it’s likely you may never see them again. If a black cat crosses the street in front of you — you might as well just go home immediately, because your whole day is ruined. If any limb or body part itches it means something; lips mean you’ll be kissing someone soon, ears mean someone is talking about you. Left eye: you’ll be sad soon. Right eye: you’ll be happy soon. Right hand: a lot of money is coming your way. Oh, and this one might be my favorite: if someone whistles indoors, it means they will become irresponsible and poor. Actually, most of the superstitions involve either becoming rich or becoming poor. Apparently, if it had rained at my wedding, I would have become rich. But because it was a bright and sunny day I will probably never be rich…And it will have nothing at all to do with going to college and graduate school for writing.

My sister used to be taller than me, but now she is practically a midget (5'1")

My sister used to be taller than me, but now she is practically a midget (5’1″)

It’s amazing I can even get myself to leave the house with all of the possible results of sidewalk-crossing, animal-seeing, and body-itching, let alone the bad omen implied by having to return home after forgetting something, which I do pretty much every time I step foot outside. I still feel responsible for my sister’s shortness, because I used to step over her when she was sitting down on the floor, and Russians believe that will prevent someone from growing. I didn’t even know that was a superstition until I began writing this blog. It makes me wonder what else I believe to be true that is actually just a product of a superstitious upbringing.

Coming from this background, it’s no wonder I always think every little thing that happens or could happen means something. For months I wondered if it meant something that everyone in my now-husband’s family was so ambivalent about coming to our wedding last month — every other week, someone was not coming, then coming again, then not coming (they all live in Israel, but still). I wondered what it meant that I didn’t have a bridal party — does no one like me? Am I not capable of having strong friendships? — even though it was my own decision not to have one. After the wedding, I wondered what it meant that the Lebanese seamstress I took my dress to left at least four sewing needles in my dress. I think she might have been trying to kill me; my husband claims it was just carelessness. Perhaps it was even replicating the Russian superstition of hiding a safety pin in your dress (I had one of those in there too, from an aunt) to keep away “evil eyes” — those who might be jealous or hold negative feelings toward you. Maybe there were so many evil eyes at my wedding it required five sharp, needle-like objects.

Sometimes I think these superstitions were made up just to give people in the Soviet Union hope that something, outside of their own duplicitous government and neighbors, was watching over them, calculating punishments and rewards, doling out good luck and bad luck. Or, considering all the superstitions that involve proper ways of consuming alcohol, to perpetuate their bad drinking habits. Just to name a few: it is bad luck to toast with an empty glass; when you have a glass or shot of alcohol it must be drunk until it’s gone; guests leaving a dinner or party must take a shot for luck on the way home; latecomers must drink a full glass or shot as penalty (for more of these, click here).

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…said no Russian EVER….

Instead of knocking on wood, Russians will spit three times over their left shoulder. If a chicken crows at you three times before noon, the death of a close family member should be expected within the month. Talking about future success: bad luck. Birds that tap on your window: bad luck. Encountering or crossing the path of a funeral procession: bad luck. Bread cut with your hands instead of a knife: bad luck. A woman coming towards you with empty buckets (when would this even happen anymore?): bad luck.

There is a very distinct pattern emerging here: nearly everything in the Soviet Union was a cause of bad luck! However, I really think most of it could just be attributed to living in the Soviet Union. Before the internet and before people were actually allowed to leave the country once in a while, Russians didn’t even know that life in the USSR was unusual. That standing in line for food, having to buy furniture from the black market, or needing a friend in the KGB just to book a hotel room for your family because your city was being evacuated wasn’t normal. If anything, daily life should have been labeled as ‘bad luck.’ Additionally, no one in the Soviet Union was ever allowed to practice their religion; and since most people were probably not fulfilled by being obligatory communists, it most likely created a void—of community, of shared values and beliefs.  Perhaps, then, these strange customs and superstitions were some kind of replacement for religious servitude?

If that’s the case (and I kind of hope it is), perhaps within a few generations—or even just mine—Russian Americans will make these bizarre superstitions obsolete. Because isn’t there enough to worry about, without adding so many things that are out of your control?

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