When I was seven or eight years old, I used to visit my Aunt Dottie, who lived next door to us, nearly every day. She was a soft, freckled, good-natured woman who fed me home-baked cookies and adored me madly. One day she had me on her lap, smothering me with wet sloppy kisses and painfully tight hugs, when she grabbed my cheek between two fingers, pinched it, hard, and in a voice brimming with love gurgled, “Kinehora, you’re so homely!”
I had no idea what either kinehora or homely meant. I cared more about the latter, since she’d used it to describe me, so when I got home I asked my mother what homely meant. “Oh, it means plain, you know, not pretty,” she casually answered, her mind on other things.
Devastated, I went straight to my closet, where I frequently held self-pity parties, laid down on the big soft blanket and pillow I kept for just this purpose, and cried my eyes out. So, I wasn’t pretty…I’d suspected as much.
I carried that word homely around with me long after my baby fat was gone and my face matured. I carried a sense of myself as “plain, you know, not pretty” until I was in my thirties, and learned that the Yiddish word kinehora is a superstitious guard against bad fortune, particularly when it comes to kids. Having suffered so much throughout history, Jews are terrified of naming anything as good, or to expect a positive outcome to any event. Some alter cockers fervently whisper kinehora whenever they do say something positive (extremely rare), lest they invoke the anger of the gods. Aunt Dottie, it turns out, was handing me a double blessing, not only with her kinehora but also by not naming what she really thought: that I was — gasp! — pretty!
Having discovered the truth, I told my mother, who had of course forgotten, the whole sordid story. She felt terrible. “Why didn’t you tell me then what it was all about?” she asked. To this I had no answer: I was just being a kid; that’s what kids do, they ask about a word; they never give parents the whole story. Besides, I’d been so humiliated by her response that I had to get away from her and into my pity closet right away.
I no longer think of myself as homely, but I’m past the age when it matters, to me or anyone else. Aunt Dottie’s lesson, however, wasn’t entirely lost on me: As my daughter was growing up I repeatedly told her, without ever saying kinehora, that she was beautiful. She is. I hope she knows it. I’m pretty sure she does.