Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Lord in Flatbush

I drive up to work with Sol, who lives a few cubicles down from mine. He takes the B train from Flahtboosh everyday to meet me at my car, and off we drive on to the FDR, Deegan and points north.

Sol is old school frum – doesn’t cover his head at work. But anyone mislead by his bare head does so at his own peril. For this Jew is one crazy frummie boasting incredible emunah (faith). I’ve never witnessed anyone ‘koreh oomishtachaveh’ (bowing and kneeling) like this guy does at minkha, for which, incidentally, he always drafts me and (guilt ridden) I always (reluctantly) attend. You see, as unofficial and unelected corporate shamis (sexton), Sol is required to spend a significant portion of his day working the phone lines, collecting other Jews from around the company and throughout Westchester for his mincha minyan.

This Sol likes bargains. More than once he’s shlepped cans of tuna fish, dozens of them, in plastic bags from the heart of Borough Park to the depths of Midwood (for non-Brooklynites, that’s about three miles).

And why not? If Season’s light tuna fish is 20 cents cheaper at Moishe Pipik’s grocery, who's he to sneeze at the four dollars he'd save for only five hours of his time on Sunday? Law school for his daughter ain't cheap you know.

As we drive through Yonkers on our journey north Sol volunteers that he had enjoyed a particularly pleasant weekend. He seemed, in fact very pleased with himself.

“I was very excited.”
“So what’s so exciting?”

Very exciting news indeed -- a monster one-day special on Tropicana OJ. How can you beat a half-gallon container of any variety for $1.99? Sol triumphantly describes how he defied ShopRite's strict limit of two containers per customer (only available in any case on purchases of $10 or more). Upon exiting, he simply turned right around and re-entered the supermarket, and repeated this exercise another eight times that Sunday. Each of us and our tiny victories.

Switching subjects, Sol goes on to tell me of a certain Rabbi Rottenberg who tends a flock in Flahtboosh. During one of his shiurim (lessons) the Rabbi let his students in on a crucial piece of historic and linguistic information they were unlikely to hear anywhere else. It was a well-known fact, he informed his rapt listeners, that ancient Egyptians were fluent speakers of…Yiddish. Some slightly more worldly listeners glanced at each other suspiciously.

Undaunted, Sol raised his hand. Rabbi Rottenberg called on him.

“Rabbi, what nussach (accent) did the Egyptians use?”
“I’m not sure. But I'll look into it.”

On May 2, 1287, England's Jews were arrested en masse. It was second time this happened: nine years earlier the entire Jewish community was thrown in prison on suspicion of ‘clipping the coinage’. Three hundred people were hanged on that occasion. This time however, there simply wasn't enough ‘evidence’ to convict. Nevertheless, the Jews were able to avoid expulsion by paying a ransom of 12,000 pounds of silver.

Monday, April 30, 2007

A Reclaimed Vine in the Pardes

They reported on it on Nazi Palestinian Radio (NPR) and the Bolshevik Broadcasting Company (BBC). Its name was whispered beside water coolers from the big fat apple to frisco, and they couldn't shut up about it on that boob tube. Lips everywhere uttered the name of this place, this new wonderland, some sort of pardes (from which the word 'paradise' is derived from). For it was only months before that it magically appeared ‘yesh m’eyn’, something from nothing. Yet they said that millions had already entered into this mysterious realm with the utterly stupid and unsexy name of 'blogosphere'.

Then around Hannuka time, I myself passed through the gates of the mythical pardes, leaving the darkness of the winter solstice behind.
And what an amazing discovery this was…this alluring vineyard of ideas, gleaming sweet fruits, pearls of wisdom and originality hanging heavy off the fragrant vines. And so many souls, once caged, now liberated (mostly from Veelimzboorg. Mahnsee, Bodo Pahk and Flahtboosh) leaping jauntily from blog to blog.

Awe struck and wide eyed I proceeded deeper, but not before pausing at a small clearing to plant my own vine.

I named it. And it even flourished for a while. I too felt liberated, and I don’t even come from the cluster of oh-so-holy towns mentioned above.

Excitedly, I watered my vine with my own two shekels, hoping someone would care and share. A few actually did come to visit and pick the fruit of my vine, but not as many as I had hoped. I knew these things take time, but still, I’m an impatient Jew, quick to lose steam. And there were so many other impressive vines in full bloom with so many devoted visitors, leaving mine easy to ignore. After all, what’s the point of painting a painting if no one stops to gaze if not admire? Why write a book if it’s destined to remain unread, shut on a darkened shelf? The challenge seemed almost insurmountable

So, like many other disillusioned bloggers, I abandoned my vine in the depths of winter, with a silent, guilty promise to return one day. yet from a distance, I noticed that some curious souls managed to stumble upon my lonely plant.

But I’m happy to announce, with absolutely zero fanfare, on a day that happens to fall on my daughter’s eighth birthday, that I’m back.

Aside from my triumphant resurfacing on this date, something else occurred exactly 201 years ago, in the life of the Jewish people: Upon his return from the Austerlitz campaign, Napoleon was assailed by a group of Alsatians (a mongrel Franco-German border region, Alsace is in northeastern France), who blamed the Jews in their midst for all their misfortunes. One half the estates in the province, these goyim alleged, were mortgaged to, and now owned by their Jewish creditors. A massacre loomed over Jewish heads, they threatened darkly. Meanwhile statewide attacks ensued against Jewish influence in general. On this 30th day of April, 201 years ago, Napoleon declared himself to be violently against the Jews, but before anyone could utter the word pogrom, he changed his mind a mere week later, taking the first steps leading to the creation of the Great Sanhedrin the following year.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Valentine of love, hate and death

Beginning in kindergarten, our teachers in yeshiva implanted and nurtured within each of our little minds a tiny virus, known as HAS, or Halloween Aversion Syndrome. If gestated successfully (and it often wasn’t) this virus programmed the mind it inhabited to utterly reject the dastardly thirty first day of October, to see it as muktzeh, a form of idol worship, evil witchcraft, and to always remember that this day was a special time for desecrators of Jewish cemeteries.
A similar virus was implanted to do the same for St Valentine’s Day. As a result I instinctively recoiled since the age of 5 from anything remotely Valentinian. My future wife was horrified upon discovering that I was infected with the anti-Valentine virus. After all she grew up in a goyishe suburb, where everyone was appropriately amorous on St Valentine’s, an evening of romantic dinners and perhaps even gifts (bribes?) of roses, jewelry or lingerie. One time she scolded me for failing to make reservations at some French restaurant she had eyed. Lucky for me though: nothing for a non-religious orthodox Jew to eat in the joint, with all those horrible treifeh entrĂ©es filling the menu.

FYI -- there were actually three Saint Valentines, all martyred in the latter years of the Roman empire. The current legends that characterize Saint Valentine were invented in 14th century, notably by Geoffrey Chaucer and his circle, when the feast day of February 14 first became associated with romantic love.

I’m too scared to tell my wife, but there is a fine reason for Jews not to celebrate St Valentine’s. For it was on this day that the Massacre of Strasbourg took place in 1349, perhaps the worst of the terrible series of outrages which took place at the time of the Black Death. The city council was favorable to the Jews, and resisted efforts to harm them. The populace however blamed Jews for the fluctuation in the price of corn, and felt that the council was conspiring to protect them.
On Febrary 14, a mob barricaded the Judengasse and drove the whole Jewish community to the cemetery where they built a huge pyre. About 2000 Jewish men, women and children were burned to death. A new council took over and declared that Jews shall be barred from the city for a century, but this kherem was eased 20 years later.

Among the spoils of that day was a shofar the mob had found in the shul. This find confirmed the suspicions of the townsfolk: it was, they said, prepared by the Jews in order to betray the city. By blowing it, the Jews would be able to inform their allies lurking outside the city walls.
For many years after, the so-called ‘Judenblos’ was blown each evening on a ‘grusselhorn’, an imitation shofar, as a warning to any Jews to depart the city limits before nightfall, and also as a reminder to the townspeople of their miraculous escape from the devious of the Jews in 1349!
Happy Valentines!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

From Cambridge to Munkatch

I'm back with a minor story to relate, which actually began about 5 years ago. Otherwise, I've been kept busy by unimportant ad-hoc assignment at work, which I attempt to complete with cheerful aplomb. The mortgage must be paid you see, so too yeshiva tuitions and Saturday night restaurants dinners for the wife (so that she continues to like me), which also means a $12/hour babysiiter.

Robert to Avram Part I

I used to work for an energy trading concern in Midtown Manhattan, a sort of mini Enron. Like many other companies like it, it closed after the collapse of Enron. Many interesting, well educated and talented young people worked there, most holding advanced degrees from Princeton, Harvard and MIT. One of my buddies there, I’ll call him Robert, held degrees in physics, mathematics and philosophy from MIT, and was one of the designers of the system of wholesale electric power trading in the US and elsewhere. Robert was a brilliant little guy with lively inscrutable little eyes hiding behind thick glasses and a mouth naturally shaped into an impish Mona Lisa smile.

When I first met him, and after years of wrestling with the issue, he had finally decide that he did believe in god, and had entered the next stage: the process of accepting that the one true revelation is the one received by Moshe at Sinai.
'Why?' I asked him.
'Because I believe!' He answered happily.

Now known as Avram, he moved to the Upper West Side (for a ‘true’ Jewish experience), hosted shabbes dinners at his house, and invited attractive twenty- and thirty-something potential baal tshuva candidates to share his revelation. He invited to once: during dinner an Aish haTorah rabbi (a former reporter and himself a Harvard grad) rose to speak. The assembled 'attractives' listened raptly, and nodded enthusiastically. Their souls were introduced to prophecies revealed through hidden codes, to the notion (the fact, he said) that 2.5 million people at Sinai can’t lie and couldn’t be wrong and more ‘facts’ I can’t remember. Also, I tried to raise several points, but after two (surely brilliant) questions, the Rabbi was on to me and ignored my raised hand. He wasn't interested me. I was rejected for the new revelation. He wanted fresh meat, tabula rasa, naive and wide eyes with no base of knowledge. New 'naaseh venishma' troops. He had no need for an ex-yeshiva boy cynic, and so he brutally cut me out. I was left to nibble on one of those spicy Israeli pickles.

But Avram remained hungry. He became dissatisfied with what he thought of as uninspiring, dry moderdoxy and was getting bored by Aish haTorah.

To be continued...

On this day in the life of the Jews...The first Auto de Fe in 1481; The Spanish Inquisition established by Sixtus IV, but it didn't begin in full force until 30 months later, when six men and women were burned publicly in Seville for 'Judaising'. This was the first of about 2,000 such burnings across the Iberian peninsula, the last of which occurred in 1826. In total, 31,912 were burned in person (alive or dead) while another 17,659 were burned in effigy. And in our own day, Jew hate in Spain especially, has been redirected into vicious Israel hate. For as anyone with seychel realizes, Israel is the embodiment of the 'The Jew', since it's not vogue -- not yet -- to be an overt anti semite. Not yet

Friday, January 26, 2007

Of Bo, Yavneh and Pernambuco

If you wanna be a good husband and daddy of three juvenile terrorists, there's no time for doing anything for yourself. That's it. No time for painting, writing, serious reading. Maybe when the kids go to sleepaway camp in a few years, maybe then I'll find some time to have the chutzpa to indulge myself. That's why I feel so fortunate to have discovered bloggery, which I can do a bit of at work.

This week's portion of the week is Bo (Come!), which together with the latter part of last week's portion (Va'era) combined to form the heart of the Passover story. The 10 plagues overlap both portions. To my eye, the first ten chapters of the book of Shmot (Exodus) come across as a a narrative description of a panel of pictograms on some pyramid wall. The khartoomim (Pharaoh's Royal wizards), staffs morphing into snakes, the centrality of the river, and the litany of plagues have a very Egyptian flavor.

Documentary analysis of the plagues suggests that not the 10 plagues didn't originate from one source (Moshe for the devout). Rather, the Priestly school (P) was responsible for some them while a later combination of the Yahwist and Elohists schools (JE) were the origin of the rest. In any case, I'd like to turn the discussion over to Littlefoxling's comments on Ve-era & Bo ; I highly recommend reading the comments as well.

I cam across an interesting review of a catalog from an exhibit at the Museum of Eretz Yisrael. The exhibit featured the remains of a Philistine geniza in Yavne. The article mentions the Philistine temple at Tel Qasila, north of the Yarkon River (just across from northern Tel Aviv). The location of this temple is notable since this expands the presence of Plishtim further up the coast, north of Jaffa, into the traditional territory of the tribe of Dan. This raises questions about the origin of Dan, and is a topic I will cover in the near future.

Today in the life of the Jews....The Capitulation of Pernambuco in 1654; In wake of the inquisition, many Jews fled to Latin America, whose rapidly developing cities would swarm with Marranos. Since Pernambuco (now known as Recife) was one of Brazil’s major port cities, it isn't surprising that a significant Jewish community developed here too (the tzniusdik ways of the Pernambucanas were another good reason to dock there).
The Dutch seizure of Pernambuco from the Portuguese was strongly supported by the Jews, and in the tug-of-war between the two colonial powers, the Jews fought alongside the Dutch. Eventually, the Portuguese reconquest of Pernambuco resulted in a mass exodus of the city’s Jews to Amsterdam and ultimately to New Amsterdam, which was destined to become the greatest city of refuge in history.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Fishing in the sacred soil

The other day I had the great honor of sharing with you a catchy ditty that my father picked up while at Pirkhey (literally 'flowers', an orthodox youth group, for any of you Jewish and gentile goyim that may have chanced upon this wonderful blog) in the 1930s.

In my youth, my father would perform an amusing rockette-like jig in his bathrobe whenever he’d be inspired to sing this song for me. One of the song lines refers to a certain Rivkeh as being a ‘favorite dish', as the singer looking forward to Shabbes, when ‘we’ll eat gefilte fish.’
Which is good segue to the discussion at hand. Fish on Shabbes was always an important part of the Yid’s diet. In the cities of antiquity however it wasn’t easy to buy fish in towns far away from a shore.

In late 2005, while digging in the remains of an ancient building in the City of David just south of the Old City wall, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists made a very interesting discovery.

Careful sifting of the soil revealed a considerable quantity of animal bones. The bones of sheep, goat and cattle are routine discoveries but this sifting produced a substantial amount of fish bones. In Jerusalem, which is far from the sea and large rivers, the consumption of fish was not an insignificant matter.

The fish were identified by Professor Omri Lernau of the University of Haifa, a renowned expert on the subject. In a preliminary examination, he identified the following species of fish: Nile perch, which was imported from Egypt; mullet, sea bream and red drum, which were brought from the Mediterranean Sea and catfish from freshwater rivers.

Fish bones have already been found in buildings that date to the end of the Iron Age in previous excavations in the City of David. Now it seems that this fare, which in Jerusalem was most certainly considered a luxury, was served up on the residents’ tables already in the latter part of the 9th century and in the 8th century BCE.

This find is also associated with the name of one of the city’s gates during this period, the “Fish Gate”, which is mentioned several times in the Bible (Zephaniah 1:10; Nehemiah 3: 3; II Chron. 33; 14) and the local fish market probably existed nearby.

During the period of the Return to Zion (5th century BCE) Nehemiah, the governor of Judah, complained that the men of Tyre (Phoenician sailors) resided in Jerusalem and that they are the ones who brought the fish to the city and sold it to the residents of Jerusalem specifically on the Sabbath.

A few observations:

1) How was the fish kept fresh during the long Donkey ride up to Jerusalem? Maybe they only sold the fish in the winter.
2) What’s with the catfish? Catfish, treife catfish, eaten in ir hakoidesh during the first temple era! Wow! Might this be a piece of evidence that kosher laws were written by the Priestly source after the destruction of the first Temple, during the Babylonian exile?
3) Even after Shibat Tzion (return form the exile) many Jews bought fish on Shabbes from the Phoenician sailors.
And now to this week's issue of Today in the life of the Jews:

The death of Anacletus II, the ‘Jewish Pope’, in 1138. His great grandfather was a prosperous Jewish banker named Benedict, who became a goy for an aristocratic shidukh. The convert’s son and grandson, Leo and Piero Leoni, became prominent in Roman civic life. The latter decided to steer his son Piero Pierleoni to an (ultimately successful) clerical career fueled by his money and connections. Pierleoni would become a cardinal, then a papal legate in France, and finally ascend to the papacy (reportedly through bribes), taking the name Anacletus II upon the death of Honorius II (I presume you’ve been keeping up on your papal history). Many resented his raw use of money to fuel his career, not to mention his Jewish ancestry. He was widely derided as an antipope, and European royalty preferred his rival Innocent II. By lavishing his fellow Romans with gifts and parties, Anacletus II was able to retain the devotion of his paisans, and his day job. BTW -- unlike other meshumads, he was friendly to the Jews.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

A Tale of Tubas and do you believe in magic?

I’m in a playful mood. Yippie. How about a little game I just devised? Here's how it goes. Read the brief story below, then follow the instructions:

"Hussam Sawafta was born in Tubas in the West Bank. Last month, Hussam’s brother Salah, an Islamic Jihadi, was killed in a shootout with Tzahal forces. Then last week, Hussam was arrested, charged with helping his brother Salah plan a terror attack in Israel."

So far, just an ordinary story of a scummy Arab terrorist meeting his rightful fate, and the arrest of his odious brother. Nothing unusual, right?

Wrong. This story is a bit more interesting, for this isn't merely the tale of the elimination of an abomination. So now, please pretend to cut the italicized text below and paste it into the paragraph above, right after the first sentence:

‘Having found work in Israel in 1991, Hussam converted to Judaism, changed his name to Asaf Ben David, became frum, got married and had four kids.'

Now, to finish this curious game, add the text below as the final sentence in the story:

‘It seems Hussam had re-established contact with his family in Tubas months before, and converted back to Islam following his brother’s death’.

What can one say. Here's a person that burned his bridges to his family, forsook everything to become a Jew, and not only a Jew -- a frum Jew. Jewish wife, kids. And yet...
So: what wonderful lessons can be learned from this little tale? Anyone?
Oh yeah, thanks for playing!

Item 2: Today's Science Times has an article about superstition. Lets face it, when we think no one's watching we have at some point in our life exhibited all sorts of weird, even obsessive compulsive behaviors. like avoiding cracks on the sidewalk, touching objects repeatedly, or even making sure we stepped back and then forward the correct number of times while reciting shmoneh esreh. Or that we (pretend) we enunciate every single word during davening, for if we didn't, we'd have to go back and pronouce the word(s) properly. Or we step into sealed rooms during sud attacks with our right foot (read below). The Times article follows.
from the NY Times, January 23, 2007
Do You Believe in Magic?


A graduate school application can go sour in as many ways as a blind date. The personal essay might seem too eager, the references too casual. The admissions officer on duty might be nursing a grudge. Or a hangover. Rachel Riskind of Austin, Tex., nonetheless has a good feeling about her chances for admittance to the University of Michigan's exclusive graduate program in psychology, and it's not just a matter of her qualifications. On a recent afternoon, as she was working on the admissions application, she went out for lunch with co-workers. Walking from the car to the restaurant in a misting rain, she saw a woman stroll by with a Michigan umbrella. "I felt it was a sign; you almost never see Michigan stuff here," said Ms. Riskind, 22. "And I guess I think that has given me a kind of confidence. Even if it's a false confidence, I know that that in itself can help people do well."Psychologists and anthropologists have typically turned to faith healers, tribal cultures or New Age spiritualists to study the underpinnings of belief in superstition or magical powers. Yet they could just as well have examined their own neighbors, lab assistants or even some fellow scientists. New research demonstrates that habits of so-called magical thinking — the belief, for instance, that wishing harm on a loathed colleague or relative might make him sick — are far more common than people acknowledge. These habits have little to do with religious faith, which is much more complex because it involves large questions of morality,community and history. But magical thinking underlies a vast, often unseen universe of small rituals that accompany people through every waking hour of a day.The appetite for such beliefs appears to be rooted in the circuitry of the brain, and for good reason. The sense of having special powers buoys people in threatening situations, and helps soothe everyday fears and ward off mental distress. In excess, it can lead to compulsive or delusional behavior. This emerging portrait of magical thinking helps explain why people who fashion themselves skeptics cling to odd rituals that seem to make no sense, and how apparently harmless superstition may become disabling.The brain seems to have networks that are specialized to produce an explicit, magical explanation in some circumstances, said Pascal Boyer, a professor of psychology and anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis. In an e-mail message, he said such thinking was "only one domain where a relevant interpretation that connects all the dots, so to speak, is preferred to a rational one." Children exhibit a form of magical thinking by about 18 months, when they begin to create imaginary worlds while playing. By age 3, most know the difference between fantasy and reality, though they usually still believe (with adult encouragement) in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy. By age 8, and sometimes earlier, they have mostly pruned away these beliefs, and the line between magic and reality is about as clear to them as it is for adults.It is no coincidence, some social scientists believe, that youngsters begin learning about faith around the time they begin to give up on wishing. "The point at which the culture withdraws support for belie fin Santa and the Tooth Fairy is about the same time it introduces children to prayer," said Jacqueline Woolley, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas. "The mechanism is already there, kids have already spent time believing that wishing can make things come true, and they're just losing faith in the efficacy of that."If the tendency to think magically were no more than self-defeating superstition, then over the pitiless history of human evolution it should have all but disappeared in intellectually mature adults. Yet in a series of experiments published last summer, psychologists at Princeton and Harvard showed how easy it was to elicit magical thinking in well-educated young adults. In one instance, the researchers had participants watch a blindfolded person play an arcade basketball game, and visualize success for the player. The game,unknown to the subjects, was rigged: the shooter could see through the blindfold, had practiced extensively and made most of the shots. On questionnaires, the spectators said later that they had probably had some role in the shooter's success. A comparison group of participants, who had been instructed to visualize the player lifting dumbbells, was far less likely to claim such credit. In another experiment, the researchers demonstrated that young men and women instructed on how to use a voodoo doll suspected that they might have put a curse on a study partner who feigned a headache. And they found, similarly, that devoted fans who watched the 2005 Super Bowl felt somewhat responsible for the outcome, whether their team won or lost. Millions in Chicago and Indianapolis are currently trying to channel the winning magic."The question is why do people create this illusion of magical power?"said the lead author, Emily Pronin, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton. "I think in part it's because we are constantly exposed to our own thoughts, they are most salient to us" — and thus we are likely to overestimate their connection to outside events.The brain, moreover, has evolved to make snap judgments about causation, and will leap to conclusions well before logic can be applied. In an experiment presented last fall at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, Ben Parris of the University of Exeter in England presented magnetic resonance imaging scans taken from the brains of people watching magic tricks. In one, the magician performed a simple sleight of hand: he placed a coin in his palm, closed his fingers over it, then opened his hand to reveal that the coin was gone. Dr. Parris and his colleagues found spikes of activity in regions of the left hemisphere of the brain that usually become engaged when people form hypotheses in uncertain situations.These activations occur so quickly, other researchers say, that they often link two events based on nothing more than coincidence: "I was just thinking about looking up my high school girlfriend when out of the blue she called me," or, "The day after I began praying for a quick recovery, she emerged from the coma." For people who are generally uncertain of their own abilities, or slow to act because of feelings of inadequacy, this kind of thinking can bean antidote, a needed activator, said Daniel M. Wegner, a professor of psychology at Harvard. (Dr. Wegner was a co-author of the voodoo study, with Kimberly McCarthy of Harvard and Sylvia Rodriguez of Princeton.) "I deal with students like this all the time and I say, `Let's get you overconfident,' " Dr. Wegner said. "This feeling that your thought scan somehow control things can be a needed feeling" — the polar opposite of the helplessness, he added, that so often accompanies depression. Magical thinking is most evident precisely when people feel most helpless. Giora Keinan, a professor at Tel Aviv University, sent questionnaires to 174 Israelis after the Iraqi Scud missile attacks of the 1991 gulf war. Those who reported the highest level of stress were also the most likely to endorse magical beliefs, like "I have the feeling that the chances of being hit during a missile attack are greater if a person whose house was attacked is present in the sealed room," or "To be on the safe side, it is best to step into the sealed room right foot first.""It is of interest to note," Dr. Keinan concluded, "that persons who hold magical beliefs or engage in magical rituals are often aware that their thoughts, actions or both are unreasonable and irrational.Despite this awareness, they are unable to rid themselves of such behavior."On athletic fields, at the craps table or out sailing in the open ocean, magical thinking is a way of life. Elaborate, entirely nonsensical rituals are performed with solemn deliberation, complete with theories of magical causation."I am hoping I do not change my clothes for the rest of the season,that I really start to stink," said Tom Livatino, head basketball coach at Lincoln Park High School in Chicago, who wears the same outfit as long as his team is winning. (And it usually does.) The idea, Mr. Livatino said, is to do as much as possible to recreate the environment that surrounds his team's good play. He doesn't change his socks; he doesn't empty his pockets; and he works the sideline with the sense he has done everything possible to win. "The full commitment," he explained. "I'll do anything to give us an edge."Only in extreme doses can magical thinking increase the likelihood of mental distress, studies suggest. People with obsessive-compulsive disorder are often nearly paralyzed by the convictions that they must perform elaborate rituals, like hand washing or special prayers, toward off contamination or disaster. The superstitions, perhaps harmless at the outset, can grow into disabling defense mechanisms. Those whose magical thoughts can blossom into full-blown delusion and psychosis appear to be a fundamentally different group in their own right, said Mark Lenzenweger, a professor of clinical science,neuroscience and cognitive psychology at Binghamton, part of the State University of New York. "These are people for whom magical thinking is a central part of how they view the world," not a vague sense of having special powers, he said. "Whereas with most people, if you were to confront them about their magical beliefs, they would back down." Reality is the most potent check on runaway magical thoughts, and in the vast majority of people it prevents the beliefs from becoming anything more than comforting — and disposable — private rituals. When something important is at stake, a test or a performance or a relationship, people don't simply perform their private rituals: they prepare. And if their rituals start getting in the way, they adapt quickly.Mr. Livatino lives and breathes basketball, but he also recently was engaged to be married. "I can tell you she doesn't like the clothes superstition," he said."She has made that pretty clear."

This day in the life of the Jews will return tomorrow.