I don’t know if Helene Friedman is alive anymore, but I do have fond memories. About half of what she said was incomprehensibly Yiddish, but I found her antics generally entertaining. She was quite old and feeble, and an infamous “cat-lady,” who always seemed to just “appear out of thin air” holding two cat carriers. The few dollar bills she could produce were damp from inside her brassiere, and her glasses were literally taped together. One thing that sticks with me, after 25 years, is her saying something about “Kinna Hurra,” which she said was so I would not get the evil eye. It was all a bit of nonsense to me, reminiscent of the “stink eye” mentioned in the movie Juno, or that unpleasant leer Michelle Obama whips out sometimes. But apparently that’s not at all what she was referring to.
My Rabbi client was in the other day and I mentioned this, and he smiled amusingly at me like my Spanish clients do when I make an attempt at saying something coherent in their language.
“You must mean, ‘Kein Ayin Hora,’ which is the Yiddish version of the Hebrew, ‘Bli Ayin Hara.'”
“Yes, of course that’s surely what I meant,” I smiled back, equally entertained at myself.
“What the heck does it mean?”
The good Rabbi gave me two explanations.
- The more traditional describes the “curse” placed on someone who succeeds or attains goals or wealth. A less fortunate person would look with great jealousy (ayin hara) at his brother and pray to Almighty Gd, complaining of the inequity. The “evil eye” has effectively placed a “hex.” The would result in someone acting or showing less evidence of success to avoid such a curse. Likewise, if complimented, he might say “Kinna Hurra,” or actually spit afterwards, to avoid the curse (apparently evil spirits don’t like spit). And so when one observes something good happening, he then quickly follows up with this expression, so as not to “jinx” the apparent good outcome. (I laughed out loud because I remembered Helene actually spitting after uttering her kinnahurra, and how taken back I was that she would do so in my exam room!)
- The explanation he said he liked better was deeper, and probably more meaningful to me, as a Christian. “One of your ‘Catholic Books’ is called Tobit (I nodded, because I had recently read these 7 books tossed during the reformation, and remembered it pretty well). Well Tobit, as well as Proverbs, refers to the concept of the ‘eye’ as a window, letting in light.”
But the ancients also thought of the eye another way, as lights shining interior light of the body. Psalm 38 talks about ‘eyes as having lost their luster.’ Of course you are thinking in medical terms, Dr. Bill, but this isn’t scientific, or medical. It’s the observation that someone’s eyes show their inner character.
I shared that Matthew and Luke both talk about the eyes showing light or darkness within. The Rabbi smiled approvingly, and continued,
So, Matthew and Luke make more sense now – if the eye is generous, it is bright and the body is filled with interior light or goodness. But if the eye is set on cursing others, the body is full of darkness.
And so, my friend, the little old woman in your memory was not only wishing you well, but paying you the highest compliment. She felt you were generous and had treated her kindly.
I thought of Helene recently, which is probably why this story was in my mind when the Rabbi came in. I was on a bus at the North American Veterinary Conference, shuttling between the two meeting venues when I looked over to the other side of the road to see an elderly woman running with a hand-written cardboard sign. In her other hand she held a pet carrier that she was swinging wildly. This strange sight caught the attention of the bus-load full of veterinarians, until the cage door sprung open and her few clothes and possessions fell to the ground. Many people in nearby cars seemed amused, smiling as they looked away, but my stomach fell to the floor, as I continued to watch. She dropped the broken cage and started wiping her face, over and over again, as her tears continued to stream down her cheeks. As she placed her glasses back on her face, I saw the tape holding them together.
As the light changed to green, my bus rolled away, and I smiled to see brake-lights of someone stopping to help her.
And so, the eyes are the window to the inner character, and perhaps the soul itself.
Do we look away with Ayin Hara, an evil eye of inner darkness, or do we look compassionately with Ken Ayin Hara, a generous eye shining with an inner light?
I’ll continue to fail miserably, I’m sure. However, I am beginning to recognize Him along my own journey to Emmaus. I’m reminded of a prayer shared with me by a Jesuit at Whitehouse Retreat in St. Louis:
Lord, keep me ever mindful, that we are always in your presence.