Ever knock on wood as a way to ward off bad luck? Wonder where it comes from? The colloquialism has a few origins, depending on the culture. Many cultures believed spirits resided in trees and that knocking on the tree brought good fortune. The Christian evolution of the phrase is the most prominent, given the religion’s dominance in American society. The “wood” refers to the cross. In fact, according to the Encyclopedia of Superstitions, “wooden amulets were worn so that it could be touched more easily.” The superstition even has a Jewish origin dating to the Spanish Inquisition when Jews had to knock a secret code on wooden doors in order to gain refuge. It is possible this explanation was created after the fact so that Jews did not feel excluded. There is a Jewish way of warding off bad luck: keyn a’yin ha-rah, which is a Yiddish phrase meaning “no evil eye.” I have heard this expression used a few times and it’s usually said by a family member more affiliated with the Yiddish culture than I am, such as a grandparent or even an aunt. More often than not, myself included, I have heard members of the Jewish community opt for “knock on wood.”
Similar to colloquialisms, word usage changes over time when different cultures adopt a word with no previous knowledge of its origin. There has been a plethora of Yiddish words adopted within American English.
Many non-Jews and Jews as well use Yiddish in everyday speaking without realizing it. Some of the most popular examples include bagel, lox, schlep, scheipel, schmooze, and schtick. This phenomenon is referred to as Yiddishism. It is fascinating that a language that was once looked down upon by not only Jews but Gentiles as a symbol of inferior status, has now been adopted by pop culture and American English used every day without a second thought. By immigrating to America, the Jews finally found a place where they were accepted, to a certain degree, and allowed to practice their religion and culture. As they assimilated and adopted American ideals, society reciprocated by adopting parts of the Jewish culture within mainstream culture.
Deborah Lewis is a contributing writer to JLife magazine.