Coffee grounds brewed trouble for Israeli fortuneteller

Nicole Halperin, left, a former Miss Israel, holds Tarot cards while fortune teller Sana Kuma holds a coffee cup she used to read the former model's future.
Nicole Halperin, left, a former Miss Israel, holds Tarot cards while fortune teller Sana Kuma holds a coffee cup she used to read the former model's future. Dion Nissenbaum/MCT

JAFFA, Israel — For nearly a quarter-century, Sana Kuma has been staring into the bottoms of coffee cups to divine the future for top Israeli models, actresses and businessmen.

It is in the chocolate swirls of coffee grounds that the dark-eyed, lemon-blond-haired, 40-something fortuneteller can see what lies ahead.

Her fawning customers consider Kuma a sage and soothsayer.

To the Israeli government she was a witch and a fraud.

This year, Kuma became one of the few people ever to be charged in Israel with practicing magic, a unique crime punishable by up to five years in jail.

In short, Kuma was the target of a modern-day witchhunt.

“Life is enemies and friends,” Kuma said recently after doing a coffee-ground reading for a former Miss Israel. “I have to accept the good and the bad.”

Kuma’s transgression is something known to its practitioners as tasseography. Put more simply, it is the ancient art of overturning a coffee cup — usually a demitasse used for Turkish coffee — and looking for answers in the patterns left behind by the grounds.

And that, under Israeli law, can be grounds to charge someone with illegally practicing magic.

“It’s against the law to be a fortuneteller,” said Ofer Almog, a Tel Aviv attorney who represented Kuma and has become something of a specialist in defending accused witches.

The law, said Almog, is vague and imprecise: It is OK to offer advice based on tarot cards and the stars. But not coffee grounds.

More importantly, the Israeli government has to prove that people reading coffee grounds know they are charlatans. And that is a difficult hurdle to overcome.

Almog had no trouble finding well-known people willing to testify to Kuma’s talents. The walls of Kuma’s waiting room are covered with tattered photographs of the fortuneteller with some of Israel’s entertainment elite. There she is with model Miri Bohadana. And television star Dan Shilon. And former Miss Israel Nicole Halperin, who stopped by Kuma’s home last week with a friend to have her coffee grounds read.

“She has special abilities,” Halperin said after her reading. “She gives you ideas, names and events, and when she gives you specific names and events, it makes you know that she’s special.”

It was the praise of people like Halperin that attracted Avraham Beihou to Kuma.

In 2004, the Israeli police officer was looking for help on the eve of his marriage.

According to the government charges, Kuma looked into the coffee grounds and saw a cursed bride.

To remove the curse, Beihou agreed to pay Kuma about $1,000 for the help of a special “Jordanian sheik” brought in to deal with the problem.

When that was done, Beihou turned to Kuma for advice about his ailing father. Kuma told the police officer and his sister that their father was likely to die in two months if they didn’t act quickly.

So Beihou paid another $2,200 for a series of amulets, which he was to dip in honey, burn or throw into the sea.

But Beihou’s father didn’t get better. So, earlier this year, he turned to the government, which filed fraud and magic charges against Kuma.

“She has no talents — she can’t heal people,” Beihou said. “If you know how to read people, you can talk like you know their horoscope or can read their future. Every person can figure out a person, but only a doctor can heal someone. She can’t.”

Kuma took the charges in stride. She hired Almog, who set about preparing testimony from celebrities to show that Kuma was the real deal.

“There is a problem defining magic in the law,” Almog said. “You have to be pretending for this law to include you.”

If you ask, Kuma will tell you that she is the descendent of a famous fortuneteller, that she has seen dwarfs, and walked in the company of saints.

“Maybe you would say that I am crazy or strange,” Kuma said. “But what I’m saying is true.”

In the end, the Israeli government decided that proving that Kuma was faking it was too difficult. Almog cut a deal. The state agreed to drop the charges, and Kuma agreed to give Beihou a full refund.

"In light of the fact that there is no clear judicial decision how to determine the crime of magic, and in light of the willingness of the accused to fully return the money to the complainant, we decided that public interest would best be served by withdrawing the indictment in this case," the Justice Ministry said in a prepared statement.

That might have been the end of it. But Beihou said last week that he’s not satisfied.

“I mean to sue her in civil court,” he said. “She’s cheated a lot of people.”

(McClatchy special correspondent Cliff Churgin contributed from Jerusalem.)