Occultism in America - May 5 at 1pm - Free Program

YIVO is offering a free lecture on May 5 at 1pm on B. Rivkin  on Occultism in America. You can register here.


The writer B. Rivkin (Borukh Avrom Weinrebe, 1883–1945) is known to scholars today as an important anarchist thinker. Less known is that Rivkin was also a firm believer in the occult who attended spiritualist séances and speculated about the possibility of telepathic communication. Over the three decades of his literary career in the United States, Rivkin published hundreds of articles on occult topics, edited a short-lived Yiddish journal devoted to the development of latent inner powers, and published a weekly psychic dream interpretation column in the newspaper Der tog in the early 1940s that analyzed dreams submitted by readers. In this talk, Sam Glauber-Zimra will uncover this forgotten side of Rivkin’s literary career. Utilizing materials preserved in Rivkin’s archive at YIVO, he will trace the significance of the occult for Rivkin and his Yiddish-speaking immigrant readers as they navigated religious change and the crisis of the Holocaust.

About the Speaker

Samuel Glauber-Zimra is a PhD candidate in the Goldstein-Goren Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. His dissertation, “Occult Modernities: Hidden Realities in East European Jewish Culture, 1880–1939,” examines the various expressions of modern occultism within the popular culture and religious thought of Eastern European Jewry and its diaspora in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. His most recent article, “Writings on Spiritualism from the Archive of R. Eliyahu Mordekhai Halevy Wolkowsky” appears in the journal Kabbalah, and he is the co-editor of Hillel Zeitlin, In the Secret Place of the Soul: Three Essays (Jerusalem: Blima, 2020) [Hebrew]. He is the 2021-2022 recipient of the The Rose and Isidore Drench Memorial Fellowship and the Dora and Mayer Tendler Endowed Fellowship in American Jewish Studies.


Forms of Prediction

Martin vaTarot reader 1n Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy. He has compiled a list of some of generally known the forms of divination.

Here is his list. How many do you know?

1. Shamanism.

Shamanism is widespread all over the world, particularly among societies made up of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists. Tribes without rulers, as I have called them in another book. Imported into modern cities, especially those of the so-called Third World, in many places it is active even today. At the root of shamanism is the assumption that, to look into the future, it is necessary first of all to leave the “normal” world by entering into an altered state of consciousness (ASC). The methods used to do so vary enormously from one culture to another. Among the most common are music (especially drumming), dancing, prayer, solitude, fasting, long vigils, sexual abstinence (or its opposite, engaging in orgies), breathing exercises, alcoholic drinks, hallucinogenic drugs, and many others.

In each of these cases, the objective is to embark the shaman on a mysterious voyage which will take him into a different country, realm, or reality. One in which the difference between present, past and future is eliminated and the last-named becomes an open book to read.

 Prophecy Update

2. Prophecy.

Also known as revelation, prophecy of the kind many of us are familiar with from the Old Testament in particular is little but a more institutionalized form of shamanism. The difference is that it is not the spirits but God Himself who supposedly reveals himself to the prophet and speaks through his mouth. Sometimes, as in the famous case of Jonah, he does so even against the prophet’s will.

Whereas shamans were almost always illiterate prophets tended to spend their lives in societies where either they themselves or others were able to read and write. Often the outcome was a more detailed, more cohesive, idea of what the future might bring.

Shattered Dreams

3. The interpretation of dreams.

Like prophecy, the interpretation of dreams goes back at least as far as the Old Testament. It, too, rests on the assumption that, by entering upon an ASC, people will be enabled to see things which, in their waking state, they cannot.

As the Biblical story about Joseph shows, dreams were supposed to deliver their message not in simple form but with the aid of symbols. Lists of such symbols are known from ninth-century century BCE Assyria and continue to be published today. Note, however, that interpreting the dreams and relating them to future events was the task, not of the person who had them but of specialists who approached the problem in a cool, analytic manner. Before delivering their verdict, they often took the dreamer’s age, sex and personal circumstances into account.

A Sybil

4. The Greek oracles.

Oracles were extremely popular in Greece and Rome. To use the example of Delphi as the most important one of all, it centered on the Pythia. She was a woman who, sitting on a tripod in a dark subterranean abode, came under the influence of foul gasses emanating from a split in the earth. Going into a sort of trance, the Pythia let forth confused gibberish which was supposed to contain the clue to the future. Next, a special college of priests interpreted her words. Oracles, in other words, resembled the interpretation of dreams in that prediction was divided into two stages, each of these was the responsibility of a different person or persons.

5. Necromancy.

The best-known case of necromancy (from the Greek, nekros, dead, and manteia, divination) is the one described in the Old Testament. King Saul, wishing to learn the outcome of a battle which will take place on the next day, asks a witch to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the dead. Whereupon Samuel tells Saul that, tomorrow, he and his sons too would be dead. Necromancy also occurs in Greek and Roman sources. Virgil in particular has Aeneas visit the underground abode of the dead where he is shown the future of Rome over a period of about a millennium, no less. The basic assumption underlying necromancy is that the dead, having crossed a certain threshold, know more than the living do. Even today in some cultures, procedures for raising the dead and consulting them concerning the future are commonplace.


6. Astrology.

Along with shamanism, astrology is probably the oldest method for trying to look into the future. Its roots go as far back as Babylon around 3,000 BCE. That is why, in Imperial Rome, it was known as the “Chaldean” science. At the heart of astrology is the proposition, so obvious as to be self-evident, that the sun and moon (which, before Copernicus, were classified as planets) have a great and even decisive impact on life here on earth. Building on this, its students try to make that impact more specific by also taking into account the movements of the remaining planets, the fixed stars, and the relationships among all of these.

Even today, almost one third of Americans are said to believe in astrology. True or false, that does not change the fact that, unlike any of the above-mentioned methods, it is based not on any kind of ASC but on observation and calculation. Of the kind that is practiced, and can only be practiced, by perfectly sober people in full possession of their faculties. So mathematically-rooted was astrology that it acted as the midwife of astronomy, helping the latter become the queen of the sciences. This position it retained right until the onset of the scientific revolution during the seventeenth century.

A glowing crystal ball held in two hands

7. Divination.

As Cicero in his book on the topic makes clear, neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever took an important decision without trying to divine its consequences first. Both civilizations also maintained colleges of specialized priests who were in charge of the process. The most important types of divination were the flight of birds on one hand and examining the entrails of sacrificial animals on the other.

Like astrology, but unlike shamanism, prophecy, dreams, the oracles, and necromancy, divination did not depend on people becoming in any way ecstatic, mysteriously travelling from one world to another, and the like. Instead it was a “rational” art, coolly and methodically practiced by experts who had spent years studying it and perfecting it. Today the same is true for such techniques as numerology, Tarot-card reading, etc.

Reincarnation - What Are the Signs?

I recently had a long discussion about reincarnation and past lives and then located this interesting video that lists eleven signs that you have been reincarnated.

While I would love to believe that I have had past lives, I don't really feel that there is any concrete way to prove it. In astrology they say that you can read about your past lives in your birth chart. Possibly so, but as for me, I remain a bit skeptical.

Here is the video. See if you match any of these important signs:


If you want to learn more, check out these interesting books:

Reincarnation: Exceptional Cases of Past Life Memories (past lives, reincarnation, spiritual, past life regression, past life memory, many lives)

Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives

My Reincarnation

Reincarnation: Afterlife: Life After Death - What Happens When You Die? Rebirth or Game Over? (Wheel of Life, OBE, Nirvana, Heaven, Paradise, Buddhism, Hinduism Book 1)


Do Dreams Predict the Future?

Dream analysisThere is the thought that dreams actually help us predict the future.

Here is a very interesting article on the subject.It is worth reading the full article but the conclusion is that after we wake from REM (dreaming) sleep, we are able to discern better patterns to make decisions. And here is a small excerpt of the article -

Perhaps the most famous dream prediction comes from the Bible. Pharaoh dreams of standing by the Nile. Seven sleek, fat cows emerge from the river, followed by seven scrawny, ugly cows that eat the plump, succulent ones. But what does it mean? There’s a pattern, isn’t there? Good is followed and overwhelmed by bad. And seven comes into it. Pharaoh summons Joseph, who interprets the dream – seven years of abundance will be followed by seven years of famine. The input is valuable. Now Pharaoh can anticipate and conserve for the bad years. But if Pharaoh can predict, why doesn’t he just dream of seven plentiful years and seven starvation years? What’s with the cannibalistic cows? Do these cows represent an associative pattern in Pharaoh’s experience? And how would identifying a pattern enable prediction, anyway?

It has to do with the way the brain works; it doesn’t passively receive information about the external world but, rather, actively interprets that information and looks for patterns in it. If everything were random, there would be no patterns, and prediction would be impossible. You can predict only by discerning a pattern in your experience (or knowledge, which is a sub-set of your experience). Are there regularities or sequences in events? Do some events generally occur with others? If there are associative patterns in events, they can be used to help predict what will happen next.

Some patterns are deterministic and logical. For example, day follows night. Day and night are, therefore, associated as a sequence in the human mind, and we can predict that day will occur after night. Another example: traffic is worst at commuter times, and heavy traffic is associated with commuting. This isn’t an association determined by natural law but, without human intervention to stagger commuter times or alter traffic flows, you can still predict the bad traffic around 8am.

Some patterns are much less obvious. We call them ‘probabilistic’ because they are based on events that have a tendency only to co-occur, so we cannot be as confident in predicting them. Predicting the behaviour of living beings, human and animal, is a probabilistic task. Based on their past behavior, you know it is likely that they will do certain things but you don’t know for sure. Their behavior is not random but neither is it determined. Living beings can always surprise you.

For example, I am a research academic with limited teaching hours. Most of my time is spent writing papers at home. It is not easy to predict when I will go into the university. The most obvious logical predictor is if I have teaching, but I will swap teaching if I have a research engagement. Another predictor is a booked meeting, but if an urgent research deadline looms I will skip the meeting. So although being at the university has a tendency to co-occur (and be associated) with teaching and meetings, it is by no means determined by them.

A less obvious predictor is an invitation to have coffee with an interesting colleague. If I am scheduled to teach and attend a meeting and also have the chance to join a colleague for coffee, it is very likely that I’ll be on campus – but it is still only a probability, albeit a strong one. On the other hand, I could be at the university just to have coffee with a colleague or because I am moving from one office to another, though these are much less likely to co-occur. That said, having coffee with a colleague on the same day I am moving office are probabilistic predictors of me being at the university.

What has all this got to do with dreaming?

Familiar people, places and events appear in our dreams but, with the lateral prefrontal cortex deactivated, we hardly ever experience them as they are in reality. Instead, people, places and experiences are recombined to render the familiar unfamiliar and often bizarre. I argue that the familiar becomes bizarre because in a REM dream we do not experience memories per se. Instead, we form an image that associates with memories of experiences. A dream image is bizarre because it portrays a pattern created by combining associated elements of different people, places or events. Our brains in REM sleep are primed to identify remote associations or non-obvious patterns between people, places and events in much the same way that, following REM sleep, we are better able to associate the word ‘star’ with ‘falling’, ‘actor’ and ‘dust’.

While we can’t say that dreams come true, we can say that they predict. I don’t believe that I will ever walk along a suburban street, see a house smothered in sand, and feel afraid. But I do think that my dreams identify probabilistic patterns in my experiences that, in the past, were used to predict experiences at ‘landmark’ places. And if you think about it, dreams can also predict how I will act in certain situations because I unconsciously anticipate their consequences. For example, you now know that if someone I love is thinking of buying a house a person has died in, I will want to say: ‘Don’t buy that house.’ If you knew what the associations I make in dreams mean, you would be able predict things about me. But if you don’t share my experiences, I don’t think you can interpret my dreams.



The Creators of the Spiritualist Movement

Atlas Obscura reports on the founders of the modern day Spiritualist movement - three Fox sisters.

Fox sistersIt was nearing midnight in late March 1848 when two young girls, Katie and Maggie Fox, cried out to their parents from their shared Hydesville, New York bedroom. Mysterious rappings noises were reverberating through the room and keeping the girls awake. The Fox family searched the house by candlelight, but found no source for the noise. The next night, the rappings commenced again. And the night after that–and every night for the next two weeks. The rappings happened for several hours each night, and it left the Fox family frightened, confused and tired.

On March 31st, the girls were sent to bed early, in an attempt to make up for their lost rest. Almost immediately, the rappings began again. This time, Katie responded to the noises by producing her own claps. The rappings, amazingly, responded in kind. Maggie joined in, asking whatever was making the noises to “do this just as I do." She clapped four times and the knocking happened four times. For several hours, the two girls continued to interact with the source of the sounds. Through this call and response questioning, the girls concluded that this was an “invisible intelligence,” a spirit of a murdered tin peddler named Charles B. Rosna whose remains were still buried underneath the house. When their mother Margaret tried to speak to the spirit, the rappings stopped. Apparently, the spirit would only communicate with Katie and Maggie.

The next night, Margaret invited the neighbors over to watch her daughters communicate with this spirit. The neighbors, at first skeptical, asked a series of increasingly intimate questions about themselves to the supposed ghost. With the help of Katie and Maggie, the spirit answered every question (through “yes or no” rappings) correctly, sometimes embarrassingly so. The guests were shocked, awed, and scared, but some needed further proof. Several volunteers grabbed shovels and dug into the cellar of the Fox house, looking for the body of “Charles Rosna.” Rising water stopped them from digging further, but the inability to uncover proof did not deter the believers. They were convinced that there was a spirit in their small town, and that the teenage Fox sisters were capable of talking with the dead.

For much of the mid-19th century, the Fox Sisters were rock stars–traveling around the world to communicate with those beyond the veil. By the 1880s, there were over eight million believers in the Fox Sisters’ ability to talk with the departed. Katie and Maggie's gifts were so highly regarded that they inspired a religious phenomenon, which would become known as spiritualism. Over the years, spiritualism would inspire Arthur Conan Doyle, give hope to President Lincoln's widow, Mary Todd Lincoln, and anger the great magician Harry Houdini, who was convinced the entire thing was a hoax.

Knowing their gifts would not be properly recognized in the small town of Hydesville, Margaret sent her two daughters to live with their elder sister, Leah, in Rochester, New York. At the time, the city was a hotbed for political activism, religious freedom, and industrial innovation. There were wealthy people in Rochester that Leah was sure would pay for her sisters’ unique abilities. Leah managed the act, setting up the sisters’ séances in Rochester and inviting prominent citizens like Isaac and Amy Post; she also filled in for Maggie and Katie when one of them couldn't perform. On November 14th, 1849, the Fox Sisters (in this case, Maggie and Leah) hosted their first big public séance in Rochester’s famed Corinthian Hall. Ads were taken out in local papers and word of the event spread it across the city. Hundreds of people showed up, some to be amazed and others simply to mock. By the end, no one was mocking, at least according to the Rochester Daily Democrat, which wrote, “that those who were present… could not but admit the evidence of their séances that THE GHOST was there.”

Maggie, Katie, and Leah became international celebrities. Luminaries of the day, like Horace Greeley, William Cullen Bryant, Sojourner Truth and William Lloyd Garrison, came out to witness their performances. The Fox Sisters traveled the world, from London to New York City, giving many a chance to witness them straddle the line between the living world and afterlife.

Often, people who approached the sisters for their expertise were grief-stricken and vulnerable, having just lost a loved one. For example, Mary Todd Lincoln, still reeling from the loss of not only her husband, but her son as well, attended a Fox Sister séances. Heart-broken people were willing to pay nearly any sum of money to be able to talk to their family member just one more time. Leah, who managed nearly all of the Fox Sisters' finances, was more than happy to take it.

As Maggie and Katie grew older, they began to resent their elder sister more and more. Several times they wanted to quit the medium business, only to have Leah tell them it was impossible. Despite money pouring in, it always seemed as if Maggie and Katie had little of it. When Maggie fell deeply in love with and secretly–though, it seems, not legally–married explorer Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, she initially did not tell Leah about it. Soon enough, Leah found out and berated both Maggie and her beloved. But Maggie and Kane remained in love until he died suddenly in Havana, Cuba in 1857. Maggie fell into a deep depression and began to drink. By October 21st, 1888, Maggie may have felt she had nothing to lose.

That night, in front of thousands at the New York Academy of Music, a tired, deeply depressed, and possibly drunk Maggie Fox walked to the middle of the stage. With her sister Katie in the audience for support, she revealed to a shocked crowd that the Fox Sisters were a hoax. She explained, both onstage and in a signed confession that appeared in the New York World, that the deception started when they were young girls. The “rappings” at their home in Hydesville were nothing more than falling fruit. “At night when we went to bed, we used to tie an apple on a string and move the string up and down, causing the apple to bump on the floor, or we would drop the apple on the floor, making a strange noise every time it would rebound,” Maggie explained. In order to keep up the trick, the girls learned how to produce a resounding popping or knocking sound by cracking their toes, knuckles, and joints. A consummate performer, Maggie removed her shoe and sock right there on stage for a demonstration, and made her toes emit several loud “raps.” She also explained other ways the sisters fooled people–like having a knocking table specially designed, and learning to write on a slate using only their feet. As the New York Herald described the scene that night in the Academy: “One moment it was ludicrous, the next it was weird.”

Newspapers across the country called this the “death blow for spiritualism,” since the very person who helped turn it into a worldwide phenomenon had reveled herself to be a fraud. In fact, spiritualism would continue—there was actually a revival after World War I—but the Fox Sisters were done as mediums. Believers blamed Maggie’s alcoholism, or even claimed that bad spirits had possessed her to denounce her abilities. Eventually, Maggie agreed; a year later, she recanted her admission of deception, saying:“At the time I was in great need of money and persons…took advantage of the situation. The excitement, too, upset my mental equilibrium. When I made those dreadful statements, I was not responsible for my words.”

All three Fox sisters faded into obscurity and died penniless, beginning with Leah in 1890. In July 1892, Katie died from end-stage alcoholism. Less than a year later, Maggie also died from complications related to alcoholism. But there's a strange coda to this tale of a childhood prank turned international sensation. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote that, in 1904, schoolchildren snuck into the old Fox house, which was known locally as the “Spook House.” There, they found parts of a skeleton sliding out of a crumbling wall, which a local doctor would later assess was approximately fifty years old—just about when Maggie and Katie's “Charles B. Rosna” should have died. Later accounts say that along with the skeleton, they found a peddler's tin box.

Could the Fox sisters talk to the dead after all? Or were the bones themselves just another hoax? Without the help of a real medium, we may never know for sure