Who’s Afraid of Evil Eyes?

By Carol W. Berman M.D.
Published on the website Forward on 6/20/2017

Ever notice how many of us Jews are afraid to receive compliments or get too positive? When you want to jump for joy or celebrate some good news, do you find yourself reluctant or do you actually stop yourself?

It may be the kine hara principle working on you. A kine hara is Yiddish for no evil eye. Ever since I was a child, if I was given a compliment or if I got too positive about something, my parents (first generation Ashkenazi Jews) would yell kine hara. They didn’t want people to say, “You’re too smart” or “You have nice hair.” When I asked my parents why they were acting so strangely, they tried to ignore my question. I eventually learned that they were trying to ward off the evil eye. As a result I learned to subdue my enthusiasm and worry about the dreaded “evil eye.” Even today as a psychiatrist who is working with her patients to train them to be more positive, I personally still have fears about receiving compliments or being too happy about anything. My parents never had the traditional counteraction techniques for the kine hara of spitting or saying “pooh, pooh, pooh.” That would have been helpful.

Kine hara, like many Yiddish phrases, comes from a combination of German and Hebrew, meaning no evil eye. Keine means “no” in German. Ayin equals “eye” and hara is “the evil” in Hebrew. Supposedly the concept stems from Genesis, but it is also found all over the Middle-East, in Arab countries, and Greece. The ancient Greeks had a theory that eyes can shoot deadly rays. For example, Medusa was able to turn people into stone by looking at them. According to many legends and folk tales, looking at people can be dangerous, especially if envy is involved. Whatever the origin of kine hara, it works against the psychotherapy that I do with my patients. I encourage them to think and act positively instead of falling back into the negative patterns many of them have had since childhood. However, if they’re Jewish, they may be afraid to do so.

In psychoanalysis there is a term called “the negative introject,” which describes the negative part of the self that we incorporate from bad parenting. That part of the self sabotages us when we are trying to accomplish positive goals. I help patients recognize this part of themselves and try to diminish it.

For instance, one Jewish patient of mine who is a writer managed to finally publish a book she’d been working on for some time. Of course, I congratulated her. Then I heard her mutter something under her breath. I said, “Excuse me?” She then said: kine hara quite clearly. We discussed the term and figured out that fear of the “evil eye” had been hindering her for some time, but she wasn’t fully conscious of it until we concentrated on it. I then introduced the idea of her negative introject feeding off of fear of the “evil eye” and keeping her procrastinating on her book and other positive things in her life. She found this extremely useful and it inspired her to write.

Another patient, also Jewish and extremely beautiful, always hid her beauty behind dark glasses and scarves up to her chin. She looked like an old-fashioned movie star, trying to hide from the public. As a result, men and women were afraid to approach her. Her socializing skills were few and she felt isolated. She wanted to date, but was reluctant to let men ask her out. We were examining these issues when she told me that every time someone said how pretty she was as a child, her parents would say, kine hara. It became clear that hiding and isolating herself stemmed from their reactions. Her negative introject had absorbed these views from her parents’ superstitious behavior and this part of her was able to thwart her when she tried to socialize. When these unconscious fears became conscious she was able to allow people to approach her. She took off her sunglasses and wore appropriate clothes that showed off her beauty.

So next time someone says” “You look gorgeous” or “Congratulations on your promotion,” try not to counter the positive with kine hara. Doing so reinforces negative thinking. Instead, simply “Thank you” and leave it at that.