My mother lived by the words, “Don’t give it a ‘kenna hora,’” a Yiddish expression that means “Don’t summon the evil eye.” She had respect for the vast amount of misfortune and sheer bad luck that can puncture a peaceful life, having experienced more than a fair share of it herself.
My mother played the “kenna hora” card in situations both serious and mundane. If we crowed with confidence about anything in the future—from a sunny weekend weather forecast to an upcoming trip—she would quickly remind us that such talk could jinx the whole thing. Her belief in the powers of “kenna hora” was especially strong when it came to matters of health. Once I remarked on how great it was that that three whole months had passed without any of our four kids getting sick. She nearly jumped through the phone, shrieking “Are you CRAZY? Don’t give it a ‘kenna hora!’”
Of course we ridiculed her superstitions and mocked the idea of the evil eye. We had the hubris of youth. But my mother was on to something.
I can’t be the only one who, surveying just one week’s news, and just from Orlando, wants to institute my own personal media blackout. My mother’s understanding of “kenna hora”—misfortune due some combination of evil and lousy luck—has been in overdrive of late. The monstrous mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub is the essence of evil, but also of terrible luck in being in that place at that moment. The person who was on his way but delayed in traffic, the one who stayed home that night with a headache—they were spared.
Then there is the alligator. Can anyone even fathom the level of bad luck at play when your toddler is snatched and drowned by an alligator? At a Disney resort? The horror of it will not leave me.
For my mother, “kenna hora” was a way to try and make sense of a world that often made no sense at all, to attempt to have some tiny measure of control. Isn’t that what most superstitions try to do? But my mother coupled “kenna hora” with another belief, an extremely wise take on life that enabled her to maintain both equilibrium and even optimism.
It was this: Always be grateful for every day that the roof doesn’t collapse on your head.
By that she meant: All the bad things that could have happened today and didn’t? Be grateful. It’s easy to appreciate the good that comes your way. It takes a real habit of mind to learn to be grateful, truly grateful, for the absence of bad.
When the plane ride is uneventful, be grateful. When you drive home and manage not to get hit by an imbecilic texting driver, be grateful. When the doctor says, “All good. See you next year,” be grateful. Rejoice in the ordinary day, because ordinary is a blessing. Just ask someone whose life has turned horrific.