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There was always the incantation: “Whoever wishes you harm, may harm come to them!” And just in case that didn’t work, there were garlic and cloves to repel the Evil Eye—or, better yet, the dried foreskin from a baby boy’s circumcision, ground to a fine powder. But whatever precautions Brenda Serotte was subjected to, they were not enough. Shortly before her eighth birthday, in the fall of 1954, she came down with polio—painfully singled out in a world already marked by differences. Her bout with the dreaded disease is at the heart of this poignant and heartbreakingly hilarious memoir of growing up a Sephardic Jew among Ashkenazi neighbors in the Bronx.
This was a world of belly dancers and fortune tellers, shelter drills and vast quantities of Mediterranean food; a world of staunchly joined and endlessly contrary aunts and uncles, all drawn here in loving, merciless detail. The Fortune Teller’s Kiss is a heartfelt tribute to a disappearing culture and a paean to the author’s truly quirky clan, especially her beloved champion, her father. It is also a deft and intimate cultural history of the Bronx fifty years ago and of its middle-class inhabitants, their attitudes toward contagious illness, womanly beauty, poverty, and belonging.
About the Author
Brenda Serotte is a poet and an adjunct professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Her poetry and prose have appeared in numerous publications, such as Atlanta Review, Kit-Kat Review, Quarter after Eight: A Journal of Prose and Commentary, and Fourth Genre, from which her chapter “Contagious” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.
Read an Excerpt
The Fortune Teller's Kiss
By Brenda Serotte
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright © 2006
University of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
Aunt Kadún had been kidnapped at age thirteen by a Turkish sultan and
placed in his harem. It happened in Çanakkele on the Dardanelles, the
region once known as Troy, sometime during Attatürk's reign, in 1908.
My family treated the incident as one of their bigger secrets, tantalizing
in its lack of details. The bare facts were repeated through gossip, to a
very few, and always in Ladino, our offbeat Spanish dialect. I heard that
she had been very pretty (like you! they told me) and that the same could
happen to me if I wasn't a good girl or if I didn't finish my entire meal.
And these meals were large.
Dire warnings were always followed by this incantation: "Whoever
wishes you harm, may harm come to them!"
Then: "Garlic and cloves! Keep the Evil Eye away! The sooner the
Then a big belly laugh, and they'd all kiss me. The first phrase was
enough to repel evil, as long as you said it right away. Considering how
many thousands of times in a week I heard these words, it seems I must
have been in constant mortal danger.
Most Turks wore something to ward off the Evil Eye: a bead, a real-looking blue eye, a tiny hand, or a small sack of
garlic mixed with cloves
that waspinned to the underclothing. Beautiful children were the number
one targets of the Evil Eye, and for that reason they were never to
be excessively praised or complimented. Beauty was a curse; combined
with talent, it invited disaster.
If someone told me how wonderful, how cute, or how talented I was,
they had to repeat, "Whoever wishes you harm ...," right away to keep
the Evil Eye at bay. For good measure it was good to shout, "Ugly! Ugly!"
at me. For the first four years of my life I was confused: Was I ugly or
not? Couldn't they make up their minds? Then, when I was around six,
I figured out the part about charm reversal. Even today, I am affected by
the frequent warnings not to laugh a lot or become overly happy with
anything because laughter always turns into tears.
Whatever charm one wore or carried, it was important to have something
that would knife through the surrounding dark spirit forces. The
fortune teller herself made the one I wore. It was a small heart made of
soft red cotton, covered on one side with hand-sewn tiny blue beads,
and stuffed full of cloves, the good luck herb. I wore this pinned to
my undershirt, and, even though it was uncomfortably bulky, I never
took it off at least, I don't think I did. All it takes is one lapse to be
cursed. For added protection I also wore a blue, very real-looking eye
on a gold chain that my father said came from Izmir. The eye looked so
authentic it scared the younger children in our building, some of whom
cried every time they saw it. It also made their older brothers and sisters
more suspicious of me and my family.
I was four years old, sitting at the kitchen table with my mother and
her two sisters, Tante Allegre and Tante Sultana, eating halvah spread
thin on a chunk of French bread, when I first heard Aunt Kadún's story.
Usually, it was rehashed over Turkish coffee on late afternoons in winter.
One version went like this: The sultan and his servant followed her
from the market. They kept close behind as she made her way down
the winding streets to the docks, past the old Ottoman clock tower.
She finally stopped to rest, and one of them grabbed her dress, from
behind, which caused her to trip and fall. Then they picked her up and
carried her off to the harem. At that point in the story Tante Allegre
would envelop me in her large, flabby arms, give me a thousand loud
kisses so fierce they sucked the skin off my cheek, and declare, "Star of
your aunt's harem!"
Another version had it that, as Kadún was being accosted by a Greek,
a Muslim Turk came along, beat up the scoundrel, and carried her off
to his harem. The whispered, most intriguing version was that the sultan
"took her," right there on the docks. Mother didn't like her sisters
talking about such things in front of me because she knew I understood
Ladino, although from early on I learned to maintain a blank face that
showed no reaction so they wouldn't hold back. When they spoke of
this or other tragic events in the lives of Turks, it was always in matter-of-fact
tones. And then they ate.
Along with too much fritada, spinach pie, and gelatin candies called
"Turkish Delights," I ate up their stories about how our family once
lived in Spain and their tales from Turkey. I liked hanging around my
tantes; they always had a juicy secret to share.
Happily, Aunt Kadún was "kidnapped back" into the family at some
point. She could just as easily have been banished from the village or
marked as unmarriageable, but her father, a loving and accepting man,
welcomed her home as if nothing terrible had occurred. In fact, he
declared her pure enough to marry a Jew, which she did, twice in her
lifetime, and she lived well into her eighties on Long Island.
But her star was cursed, Tante Allegre once remarked. Tante Kadún's
only son, Nathan, a gifted pianist, was drafted, then killed, in Germany
during the Second World War.
The youngest of the three sisters' children, I was much teased. On a
bad day they told me I was destined to be the fourth wife in the harem,
the one least in demand. On a good day they said maybe I'd be the first
wife, the one who selected all the others. In fact, Kadún means "first
wife." No wonder it was such a popular name among Sephardim. So
were Oro (gold), Diamante (diamond), Sultana (Arab queen), and my
favorite, Zimbúl (jasmine). A woman had to be beautiful inside and
out, even her name, as well as talented and obedient. They said I was
talented and beautiful, but it was no secret that I was disobedient. I got
into trouble daily, breaking glasses, refusing to eat, sneaking out of the
apartment in my pajamas.
When I was three, there was the dumbwaiter incident. I decided one
day that my grandmother's new black shoes weren't clean enough, so I
washed them by dipping them in the toilet bowl and flushing. Mother
was so incensed that-despite Nona's pleading with her not to-she
bullied my dad into holding me upside down in the dumbwaiter shaft
and shaking me like a bag of laundry. I can still feel the blood rushing to
my head and hear my heart pound, thinking he was going to drop me
down into the roaring basement furnace where our super burned the
garbage. Years later I asked her how she could do such a thing. "Oh,
that," she said. "We lived on the ground floor. You wouldn't have had
far to fall."
Ostensibly named in honor of my father's mother, Behora, meaning
"firstborn," I also had an American name inspired by Brenda Frazier,
the 1940s society deb whose escapades my mother avidly followed in
the gossip columns.
To appease my maternal grandmother, Nona Benvenuta, my mother
said I was named for her; both grandmothers having a B name helped
soothe ruffled feelings. The Sephardic tradition of naming children
after living relatives began in Spain hundreds of years ago, when Jews
were forced to adopt certain Christian customs. To the Ashkenazi,
whose children were named only after deceased relatives, the custom
I was the center of attention, at least for five years until my brother
came along, and I reveled in the praise of my "gorgeous" hair, my "rich"
singing voice, and my "keen" intelligence ("Whoever wishes me
harm ..."). Thanks to Tante Allegre, who considered me a family
jewel, I never wanted for tender affection. My mother hated kissing and
hugging anyone, even my father, but my aunt's loving attitude toward
me and her hands-on attention throughout the years saved me. Even
when I was ill and thin, unrecognizable even to myself, she continued
to tell me I was beautiful.
Allegre was the matriarch of the three sisters, Sultana was the middle
one, and my mother, Rosika, was the youngest. She called herself a
freak because of her height-she was five foot ten-and her red hair.
The neighbors knew them as Alice, Suzy, and Rose; the rest of the family
referred to them as "the Council." They were inseparable. Each day they
strolled the Grand Concourse three abreast, the statuesque redhead in
the middle, flanked by her shorter, darker older sisters, all three clutching
identical black purses.
They shopped at Matarasso's Turkish Grocery on Sheridan Avenue
and searched for clothing bargains across the Concourse, down Jerome
Avenue. Often they joined the Yids at the fish market to yell at the fish
man, whom nobody trusted. In the afternoons they gathered in our
apartment to gossip and drink Turkish coffee, the bitter brew whose
grounds could reveal your fortune.
In Turkey, they claimed, the sultan's mother ran not only the harems
but the entire country. This was true in our family, too. The men were
demanding, temperamental, and bossy, but the women ran the households.
Their husbands respected and feared one important thing: Many
Turkish women knew how to fix the sick.
Carried with them from Spain to the Balkans in the fifteenth century
were a mélange of medicines developed over the ages, combining a belief
in spirits, folklore, and the Evil Eye so strong that none dared question
it. Even our European Ashkenazi neighbors, who had their own
superstitions, respected these special healing talents. Tante Allegre and
my father's mother, Nona Behora Downtown, or Behora the Fortune
Teller, as the grandchildren called her, were both gifted in that area. It
was said that, if Grandma had been alive when I contracted my "cursed
illness," she would have fixed me right up. Either that, or I would have
died of fright from the ritual itself.
There were tales for mealtimes and tales for bedtimes. I devoured
them all, and sometimes they devoured me. My aunts marveled at how
unafraid I was of most things, but often, as a preventive for a story they
were about to tell, I was forced to take the medicine for a big fright: I
had to swallow a heaping teaspoon of dry sugar, followed by a glass of
warm water, or drink three teaspoons of sugar dissolved in warm water.
Either way, I gagged. And for good measure, after I choked down the
nauseating sugar water, they'd bathe my face with the rest of it.
Luckily, I never had to experience the extreme cure: mumya, as in
"mummy." Mumya was actually the dried remains of the bones of a
dead person found ages ago in the Sinai desert, a cure that Sephardic
women had used for centuries. In modern times, however, the mumya
with the most healing qualities came from the dried foreskin of a baby
boy's circumcision, pulverized to a fine powder.
This remedy was the best; it cured anything when stirred into sugar
water. Mumya was hard to find, and only a few Sephardic women in
the network-the healers and the sorceresses-knew where to get it.
Of course, Behora, being a well-known and multitalented clairvoyant,
knew. It was fact that she had saved, using that and other remedies,
mortally ill people from sure death. She would venture all the way to the
dark continent of Brooklyn to purchase the powder from an old woman
they called "La Vieja"(the old one), who lived way out in Coney Island.
Despite all the precautions I was subjected to, shortly before my
eighth birthday I came down with polio. It was the fall of 1954 (almost
immediately thereafter the polio vaccine would be perfected) on a
Monday night. The evening before, I had performed the "Dance of the
Seventh Veil" for company. Later I had a hard time even walking down
the foyer to my bedroom.
The next night Mother had "the girls" over for the weekly mah-jongg
game. I was at the card table, straightening the "wall" of ivory tiles for
their next game, when I sank to the carpet as if someone had pulled
a string on top of my head. One day I was a wild child, running and
free; the next, an invalid surrounded by weeping women, who said:
"Sickness was first a guest of the house, then it became the master of
It was apparent to all that somebody at that Sunday night party had
been jealous of my talents and had "eyed" me with either a blue or green
eye. My mother and my aunts went crazy for months afterward trying
to figure out who it was. All light-eyed persons we'd come into contact
with in recent weeks were suspect, including the kosher butcher's
green-eyed sister, who sometimes helped out in the store.
But Grandma Behora used to say that a person's true fate was foretold
at birth. She'd even ridicule her own fortune-telling powers, insisting
that she merely interpreted a person's life changes, which had been
preordained. Mother said Behora liked to say that to ward off curses.
Before my parents were married, Grandma "read" my mother's Turkish
coffee grounds, which foretold that the firstborn child would be very
sick. Mother never forgave her: "The words came out of the mouth of
a witch, who didn't want me to marry her son at all because he was her
favorite boy and the only boy out of four who gave her money from his
own family's pocket!"
My mother was an odd mixture of twentieth-century modern woman
and old-world Sephardic daughter. On the one hand, she claimed she
was too educated to worry about superstitious Turkish nonsense. On
the other, though, I knew the prediction about my getting sick haunted
My Turkish-born tantes and the old women on my father's side of the
family had no such doubts. For simple but offbeat cures they didn't have
to travel to Coney Island; they had them right at home. There was even
one for girls like me who refused to go to bed-because I didn't want
to miss a word of the adults' stories, and the best ones came out late at
night. This "cure" came in the form of a bedtime story, "The Woman
with Seven Breasts."
"When the woman with seven breasts gets here, she'll give you her
milk, so you will fall asleep fast," began Tante Allegre. This was meant
to be soothing, but it had the reverse effect on me: "She is not! I'm not
going!" I yelled. "I don't believe you!"
"It's true!" Tante kept insisting, with so much conviction I almost
bought it. Of course, she added, if I chose to go to bed myself, then they
could save the goddess a trip. One of the tantes would distract me, while
another one flung the seven cotton balls up to the ceiling in various
places, where they stuck like glue.
"Look at the breasts!" they cried. "She's here!" Then one aunt prepared
my bed, ready to overpower me and throw me in it, and the other
gyrated or rocked back and forth, thanking the goddess for showing
up. Even though I didn't believe a word of it, I would occasionally have
a bad dream about a large woman crashing down on top of me in my
bed-anyone with seven breasts had to be fat!
* * *
In August 1492, the same time Christopher Columbus sailed to America,
Jews were ordered to convert to Christianity or leave Spain, where
they had lived since the tenth century. Those who refused to convert
were burned at the stake in autos-da-fé, "acts of faith" ceremonies carried
on during the Inquisition. Those who did convert were called "conversos."
Others, called "marranos," tried to beat the system by practicing
Judaism and sacred rituals in secrecy, but they were often discovered,
imprisoned and tortured, then paraded through the streets wearing yellow
vestments and burned. Christianity was a touchy subject at home.
When I asked, innocently enough, if any of us were Catholic, I'd get a
look to kill. No explanations.
The first contingent of Spanish Jews sailed from Cádiz to North
Africa in July 1492. Soon hundreds of Jews from Seville, Toledo, Córdoba,
Granada, and Zaragosa made their way down the Guadaquivir
River to the port in Valencia and on to Italy, where they stayed for either
a hundred years or ten, nobody knows for sure. Mother was sure that
our family took this route because our Ladino was peppered with so
much Italian. Our ancestors then went to Turkey and Rhodes. Others
went overland to Morocco and Fez. "We were luckier," she said. "The
Jews who made it to Morocco were butchered almost immediately, even
though they were conversos."
Eventually, most who survived made it to the Balkan countries and
into the welcoming arms of the Turkish sultans. They found their way
to Greece, Bulgaria, Armenia, and to the islands of Rhodes, Chios,
and Cyprus; to the Dardanelles and to cities such as Salonika, Monastir,
Izmir, Erdine, and Bulgaria, where they remained, mostly happily,
for the next four centuries. They paid a heavy poll tax for the pleasure
of Turkish citizenship, but, because they were Turkish subjects protected
by an ancient pact, they were allowed to keep their Jewish faith,
their Spanish customs, and, most important, their ancient Spanish language:
Although Mother preferred to believe that we had descended from
Spanish nobility, we definitely were not, either by birth or by marriage,
the Sephardim known as the Grandees. They were the wealthy, regal
Jews of colonial times who settled in Charleston, South Carolina, and
Savannah, Georgia, as early as 1702. Most likely, we were descendants
of Andalusian flamenco dancers and guitar-playing zinganos, the gypsy
Jews of Muslim Spain.
Excerpted from The Fortune Teller's Kiss
by Brenda Serotte
Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
6. Northern Lights
7. Quiche Lorraine