A Magical Encounter

Walking home from Shacharis one morning last week, I had an interesting interaction with a little non-Jewish boy.

Turning a corner, I found myself facing a middle-aged woman, clearly from the Indian subcontinent, wrapped in a traditional Pakistani shawl, accompanied by a little boy of perhaps 8, walking toward me.

It is my practice to offer all people I meet, even in passing, a smile and greeting. “Good morning,” I said, and both mother and son responded in kind. As I walked on, though, I heard the boy call something from behind.

I turned around, smiled at the boy, now across the street, and called out, “I’m sorry. What?”

“Are you guys,” he responded, grinning broadly with the innocent curiosity characteristic of little boys, “really magicians?”

I was alone, and so “us guys” could only mean us guys in the neighborhood with beards and hats. He was clearly enthralled by the prospect of our wizardry. I laughed and said, “I wish!” The mother just kept walking.

Of course, I don’t really wish to be a magician, but I wanted to assure the boy that, no, we Jewish guys don’t possess magical powers. What aptitude we have lies in our tefillos, not the hocus-pocus little Musa was eagerly imagining.

I don’t know if it had been his mother who informed the boy then that we Jews are sorcerers (she had walked ahead), or whether it was something he had been taught earlier. But it’s unlikely that the characterization was intended to endear us to him. Whether my friendly demeanor and denial of the charge will in any way prevent him from absorbing his “chinuch” is something I’ll not likely ever know. But one can hope.

The view of Jews as sorcerers is an ancient one. When half of Europe’s population perished in the 14th century’s Black Death, Jews were less affected than their neighbors (something commonly attributed to our regular hand-washing, an activity shunned by non-Jews at the time). Jewish communities were massacred on the assumption that their members had poisoned wells or cast magical spells on their neighbors

Apparently the imagining of our sorcery, like so many anti-Semitic tropes, persists today. Last year, Tehran University professor Valiollah Naghipourfar was asked by an interviewer for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting whether jinns, or demons, can “be put to use in intelligence gathering.”

His response was: “The Jew is very practiced in sorcery. Indeed most sorcerers are Jews.”

And in 2013, Hamas religious leader Sheikh Ahmed Namir charged that evil Jewish (and Christian — the fellow’s an equal opportunity paranoiac) demons had possessed Palestinians, and were behind a Gazan mother’s attempt to murder her child. She was, Mr. Namir explained, possessed by “67 Jewish jinn.” Palestinian exorcist Sheikh Abu Khaled reported that “most of my patients are possessed with Jewish jinns.”

And so it goes.

It’s easy today to become oblivious to how some ignorant people among our neighbors see us. After all, we regularly come into contact with unbigoted, friendly non-Jews. The morning of the day I’m writing this, a bus driver who could have ignored the bearded, black-hatted man walking up a hill instead signaled happily that I didn’t have to rush, that he’d wait for me. From my desk at Agudath Israel’s headquarters, I regularly see respectful public officials who have come to visit.

Sure, we all realize that there are third-world inhabitants with benighted attitudes toward Jews, who cling to dark fantasies about the Yahuds. But we don’t often imagine that our neighbors might be sullied by such psychological slime. My post-Shacharis interaction was a little reminder, I suppose; a reality check.

And yet, it’s not hard to understand the assumption of our wizardry.

To be sure, divination and witchcraft are foreign to Jews and forbidden. As Bilam will remind us this Shabbos, as he does each year, “There is no sorcerer in Yisrael.”

But isn’t the fact that, through millennia of persecution and attempts at our annihilation we Jews persist as a nation … if not magical, miraculous?  And aren’t the achievements of Jews, not only in the most meaningful realms like Torah and chessed, but even in fields more readily appreciated by “the world”… astonishing?

There is indeed magic here, though, of course, that’s not the right word. We’re not sorcerers, chas v’shalom. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something supernatural — in the word’s most basic meaning, “beyond physical nature” — behind our survival, in our successes, and lying in our future. As we prepare to enter Bein Hametzarim, our mourning should be tempered by that thought.