The Evil-eye and Lead Poisoning

In November 2017 all major newspapers ran a top story like this one: Some Brooklyn Children Have Blood Levels Higher Than Kids in Flint. Specifically, the Brooklyn children found to have such high blood levels were the Hasidic kids. As WNYC reported: “The highest rate was found in South Williamsburg, in the tight-knit, ultra-orthodox Jewish Satmar community.” The second highest rate came in in Borough Park, another Hasidic enclave.

When I read this news, I was totally surprised. Hasidic women are almost all stay-at-home mothers, and their kids are the center of their worlds. The kids we see in the community are dressed to the nines and seem quite alright. I didn’t understand why there should be such high rates of lead poisoning. I wondered if there was a cultural issue that might contribute to the lead poisoning rates, but this is all the explanation the media offered:

“Several factors contribute: Old housing, built long before the city’s 1960 lead paint ban, now has peeling paint. Poverty rates are high. And many residents speak Yiddish as a first language, which can make it more difficult for city health workers to do outreach. “

This simplistic story doesn’t satisfy me at all. Because with regards to old housing, New York city is replete with old housing and Hasidic kids are hardly the exception. With regards to poverty rates — I have heard a million times from the media that the poverty rate in the Hasidic community is high, but I don’t understand why they take the reported incomes at face value and don’t account any for the variables that make the community poverty rates seem so stark. There is a whole book to write on the complexities of the Hasidic economy, but I touched on some factors here. I hope to one day be able to write more on that, but don’t expect to have the time or energy anytime in the next decade. But for now, without going into the many reasons why I dispute this simplistic assessment, I’ll say that Hasidic kids are not growing up in impoverished situations. They all are well fed, dressed, housed and cared for. Medical care is widely available through medicaid doctors, and kids don’t go without treatment. I don’t see any relationship between high lead levels and Hasidic financial challenges.

And as for the language barrier – nah. Yes, Yiddish is a first language, but adults understand English full well and get by with various degrees of teeth breaking, but all in all, just fine.

Whenever the city decides that they will use Yiddish to reach the Hasidic community the results are either mildly comical or absurd or strange. But most of all, they give away that the gap between Hasidic Jews and westerners is not language, but culture.

I took this picture yesterday in Bushwick: a poster from the City department of health, hung upside down.

I love when the park translates the rules to Yiddish. It’s just bizarre. This sign before a Williamsburg park tells Hasidim exactly how to comport themselves with their dogs, even though none of the Hasidim have dogs.

Back to the story of the lead poisoning, I tried to ask around and do some of my sleuthing, but no one could explain why Hasidim have such high rates of lead poisoning. I spoke to some health reporters back then and hoped they could explain, but they were content with these superficial narratives of “poverty” and “yiddish”. Which, by the way, one walk down the full length of Lee Avenue and you’d have a hard time accepting this narrative.

So I didn’t find out. And I still don’t know.

I did cut this story out of the paper a few weeks ago, and it tells people about a campaign to raise awareness about lead poisoning that could result of paint, but that didn’t answer anything either.

But — yesterday on my tour we were discussing superstitions, and I mentioned blei gissen, the process of pouring lead to ward off the evil eye . The evil eye is generally considered to be a kind of bad omen or karma that comes from the envy and ill-will of others. The evil eye could often afflict those with striking beauty, money, smarts, etc. No one ever thought I was afflicted with the evil eye, so I don’t have personal experience with the various voodoo treatments like blei gissen, but I regularly see classified ads in the local papers for this service:

These ads are all for experts who proclaim they could help you “remove the evil eye and breathe easily” and “extinguish the evil eye by pouring lead”. Usually, the “expert” is Israeli, a travelling healer of sorts, who makes the rounds through US neighborhoods collecting fees for various opaque cures. My mother has insisted for years now that a birthmark I have on my face could easily be removed for the quick transaction of $400 between me and some Yerushaleymer miracle worker, and I’ve insisted that I’d very much like to hold on to my birth mark and my four hundred measly dollars. But I know my mother will fork over the moola to these itinerant wielders of Bubbe Maysos (sorry, I’m a cynic, it’s the truth) even as she knows full well there’s more than half a chance that it’s some kind of sharp sabra’s ruse. My mother is an intelligent woman and a part of her faith in this witchcraftery is the faith in the placebo effect: the simple belief that if this man will make me think I’m cured, then I will be cured.

In these magical men’s (or sometimes women’s) bags you’ll find various other treatments, like natural ointments or swinging pendants, palm reading and wrinkle reading, or reciting special prayers at specific sites. But the blei gissen seems to be especially popular, because not a week goes by that I don’t see an ad for it in the paper.

Here is a description of the procedure, which I found in a profile in the Jewish publication Five Towns:

To perform blei gissen, Rebbetzin Miller takes an ordinary looking pot, places a small bar of lead in it, and begins heating it on the kitchen stove. She gives out a laminated sheet with a tefilah on it to read while the lead melts. She does this in a typical kitchen with foods baking and children walking through. When the tefilah is finished and the lead has melted. Rebbetzin Miller casts a thick, off-white sheet of cloth like a tallis over the person. The molten lead is poured from the saucepan into a pot of cold water above the person’s head as the Rebbetzin speaks softly. The lead crackles and pops as it hits the cold water. The sheet is removed. The lead has fragmented into long pieces that look like silver twigs. If some of them have bulbous ends, the Rebbetzin explains, “Those are eyes. There is some ayin ha’ra. We have to do it over.”

Sometimes a curved piece can emerge that the Rebbetzin says is a “bird,” which signifies an imminent simcha. She repeats the process one more time to make sure all the ayin ha’ra is gone. Then, for good measure, she takes the names of a couple of the person’s family members and pours lead in their names. She concludes by pressing a few red strings from Kever Rachel on the subject along with a sprig of ruta in a tiny plastic bag.

Hmmm. Hum. I’m part intrigued, part scandalized– the entire procedure seems rather fascinating and I want to see a movie about it.

Well, I actually didn’t know any of how this Rebbetzin Miller or the other peddlers would do their work. I just mentioned blei gissen in conversation about unscientific “healing” and a German woman immediately offered to explain blei gissen – how it’s done and how you read the shape of the cooled lead as a way of diving what’s to come. Blei gissen is a very popular New Year’s custom in Germany. It’s written Bleigiessen but pronounced the same as in Yiddish. The full fancy word for the concept of pouring lead for learning special information is called Molybdomancy, a custom that can be found in “Finland, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Turkey, and Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

The woman in our tour told us that one year, she hosted a New Years party in New York, and wanted to have a good time with the pouring of lead and the whole tradition. She couldn’t find the lead kits folks typically use (because it’s outlawed, I believe) so she ordered some lead pellets online. To their utter disappointment, the pellets wouldn’t melt. So we can assume the sign for their upcoming year to come was that of a pellet, which I assume is not a good prophecy. That’s just my thinking; I’m not an expert till someone offers to pay me $400 for my reading.

While I get a bitter kick out of the absurdity of such customs (they just don’t make sense to me, and border on exploitation), I also worry that this custom is simply not safe. On Wikipedia, you’ll see plainly in the first paragraph: “Some versions have been found to have potentially harmful effects on human health.” Specifically, the version that uses lead. There have been efforts in other cultures to replace the metal with tin, as described in the Telegraph:

Another charmingly suicidal German New Year’s tradition is molybdomancy – the posh word for divination using molten metal, or as the Germans call it, Bleigießen, pouring lead. Never heard of it? Quite rightly, since the British decided a long time ago that smelting was an activity best carried out in the open air – preferably somewhere very wet, like Wales. But in Germany, kits are sold with small burners and spoons and, in what looks to the untrained eye like a scene from Trainspotting, friends and families gather round to watch what form the molten metal makes as it hits the cold water, referring avidly to a checklist of shapes to see what the new year holds for the person who poured.

Given the toxicity of lead compounds, there have been efforts in recent years to convince the German Gypsy-Rose-Lee-wannabes of the virtues of tin, but largely in vain. 

I don’t know if the Rebbetzin Millers and Rav Teitelbaum’s of the Hasidic world use lead or tin, but odds are high that the earnest smelting and pouring and divining why a gorgeous little Hasidic boy is always sickly is happening with lead. I also do not know if this contributes, in any way, to the high rate of lead in the blood among the Hasidic population. Obviously I’m in no position to make such claims, but also obviously — the weekly arrival of a new lead-pouring guru can’t help.

I think the blei gissen industry should be a part of the investigation and education campaign on Lead Poisoning. But the larger point is that blei-gissen is but one example of a hazard found in the Hasidic community that doesn’t (mostly) exist for their New York City neighbors. If we try to diagnose and address problems afflicting Hasidim – ie the measles – we cannot expect an effective outcome if we don’t understand the holistic cultural situation from which the problems arise. A lot of the measles crisis could have been dealt with more effectively had they investigated beyond plugging words into Google Translate.

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