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Signs Of Life

Columns by Pamela Majteles

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Posted by pam on January 14, 2011 at 10:26 pm

Originally published November 30, 2007

Reprinted with permission from Bay Area News Group – East Bay

Since joining my husband’s family, I’ve learned another language. It’s not the Polish, German, or Yiddish language spoken by his parents. I am talking about the words and gestures they commonly use for good luck.

They are looking for good luck, probably because they knew so much bad luck early in life. Both of my husband’s parents are Holocaust survivors. They had the extraordinarily bad luck to be born in Poland in the years prior to WWII. They were children who lost mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers, along with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

With so much early trauma and loss, I cannot help but marvel at how they turned out. My in-laws are loving, generous, and optimistic. These qualities are obvious to anyone who knows them.

My in-laws, however, are unlike anyone I know, perhaps because of their past. Despite their optimism, they regularly use words and gestures to summon good luck. It may be more accurate to say they are trying to drive away any bad luck. Either way, the goal is the same.

It’s common for some people to knock on wood for good luck. Less common is how frequently my family does it. Family gatherings often sound like construction is going on or, at the very least, someone is very busy with a hammer. When my mother-in-law tells us, “Cousin Hannah is feeling good after her surgery,” she will punctuate it by knocking on the nearest surface. Or, “Mark’s wife is having another baby”, she knocks some more. Or, “Sarah is doing well in school”. Knock, knock, knock.

If not knocking, my mother-in-law has another way of summoning luck. It’s best described as a one-word chant. The word sounds like “two-ey” (rhymes with “chewy”). She always says it in series of three. It’s her adaptation of an Old World ritual of spitting for luck. Instead of saliva, she uses words. When saying, “Henry has a great new job”, she follows it up with “Twoey, twoey, twoey”.

My mother-in-law’s most elaborate gesture accompanies the arrival of a new baby. After having my first child, she gave me a red satin ribbon with instructions to place it under the mattress in the crib for luck. It was not enough to tell her that I had done it. For the three years my daughter slept in the crib, my mother-in-law would ask, “Is the red ribbon under the mattress?”

After many years, I am still far from fluent. Like any language, it’s best learned young, as my husband did. He often translates for me. In addition to the luck we influence ourselves, there are random incidents that signal good luck, such as dishes falling and breaking, bells ringing, and repetitive sneezing.

Although I would never be considered fluent, there are times I can convincingly use the same words and gestures. It’s like living in California with so many people who speak Spanish — I can revert to it when others around are using it. (However, no one in the entire Spanish-speaking world would ever consider me fluent in that language either.)

What I like best about this language is its optimism. Even after everything my family experienced in their lives, they still believe good luck is possible.

Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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