Here’s a thing I wrote for the Jewish Quarterly.
I am superstitious. Medieval-peasant superstitious. Large-gossipy-18th-century-shtetl-fishwife superstitious. I’ll always refer to “the Scottish play” rather than, you know… the one that rhymes with MacDeath, even if it makes me sound like some old Victorian ham (if I can use that term in a piece for a Jewish magazine). I even hesitated about writing… the word that rhymes with MacDeath, as I’m not sure what the rules are. Is it still bad luck to write it? Maybe it’s OK to write “M-cbeth”, like orthodox Jews write G-d. Yes, that didn’t seem too bad. No damage done.
In all other areas of my life I’m a real rationalist, I’m practically Dawkinsian. But when it comes to matters of what brings good or bad luck, I’m a half-naked Amazon tribesman with war-paint and a spear. Who refuses to walk under ladders.
Of course I know that superstitions are clearly nonsense. Some people say it’s lucky if a bird poos on you. I say those people are probably dry cleaners. That’s nothing to do with luck, they’re just trying to make you feel better. The French have a similar thing about front teeth with a gap in them. They call them “les dents de bonheur” – “happiness teeth”, teeth that bring you luck. But as someone who has a gap between his teeth wide enough for an Italian cruise ship captain to sail his ship through without causing any damage, I think a better name would be “les dents de whatever the French is for Don’t Patronise Me”.
However these are things that bring you good luck. When it comes to things that bring you bad luck, I tend to believe every rumour I’ve even half-heard. I was once told that you have to look someone in the eye when clinking a glass with them or you’ll have seven years bad sex. Not with them, just generally. It doesn’t matter if you’re clinking with your boss or Anne Widdecombe or a hedgehog who’s been trained to stand up on his hind legs and hold a glass in his tiny hedgehog paws, the rule still applies. As a result when I clink, I stare at my clinkee with such stalker intensity that I’m more likely to get seven years in prison than seven years not-bad sex.
For me, it’s a bit like Pascal’s Wager. As you may know, the philosopher Pascal, unable to prove whether God exists or not, felt that you might as well opt to believe because then at least you won’t end up burning in hell or looking a right plonker at the pearly gates if the Big Man does exist (not his exact words). Well, I apply Pascal’s principle to just about any superstition. Why risk it? It might be true. In Scottish devolutionary terms, I see it as a sort of Pascal’s Wager Max.
This has caused problems, especially during the three years I spent studying Yiddish. Yiddish believes that as soon as you pay someone a compliment, any demon within hearing range (and demons have incredibly good hearing) will rush over and comprehensively wreck that person unless you immediately ward off the evil eye. I soon felt absolutely compelled to throw in a quick keneynehora if ever I said something nice about someone, even in English (it literally means “no evil eye” but I think you get a better sense of it by using the slightly more playground “bagsie no evil eye”). Likewise if I mentioned something bad I’d have to throw in something like nishtogedakht (“bagsie it shouldn’t happen here”). On one occasion I found myself at a posh do talking to Prince Edward about the Queen Mum’s robust health and couldn’t stop myself blurting out a biz hundert un tsvantsik (“bagsie she should live till 120”). I even felt obliged to throw in a tfu-tfu-tfu (the triple spit which really keeps the Evil Ones at bay. And by that I don’t mean the paparazzi). Yes, I triple-spat in front of Prince Edward. It was either that or let his granny succumb to a sudden demise. Which she did just a couple of weeks afterwards. But at least I knew it wasn’t my fault.
I’ve calmed down since then and I’m hopeful that my days of relaxed indoor umbrella-opening and salt-spilling are not far away. Keneynehora. Tfu-tfu-tfu. All I have to do is screw my courage to the sticking-place, as they say in Macbeth. I mean, the Scottish play.