Author Archives: Anna Shakeshaft

Gesture: Evil Eye

Main Piece: “In Italy, my experiences…bad things happening to me meant that I watched what people did when they wanted to ward off the evil eye. A common gesture is to make this sign [index and pinky finger are raised with other fingers tucked in. Hand “pokes”or “stabs” the air].”

Background: The informant learned this gesture by watching people perform it. The informant grew up in Rome and it seemed important to the informant because Italians are typically a Catholic/Christian population, so it seemed pagan to her that the devil would be warded off by a hand gesture. The informant sees this gesture as a different way of approaching ill fortune in the absence of religion. She noticed, growing up, that Italians are very expressive with their hands, so this gesture was significant.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I find it interesting that the informant’s interpretation of this gesture was to “ward off” the evil eye. I’ve heard of the evil eye in a different context (in Israel) and it is used quite differently. In Israel, the evil eye is an object, usually a glass medallion which resembles the eye, hung in a common space (such as a home or a car) to ward off evil. The informant interprets the evil eye as what should be warded off. I find the gesture interesting as well. Its symbol and movement appear threatening, as the fingers point in the opposite direction of the individual with his/her fingers pointing outwards and moving in an abrupt, sudden way. It seems that, for this group, the way to ward off threat is to be threatening themselves. The gesture was something that was picked up by the informant. Rather than an oral medium of passing down folklore, the informant adopted the gesture in a social context of learning.

Passover: Ashkenazi and Sephardic Foodways

Main Piece:  “In terms of food… um… my mom is Ashkenazi and my dad is Sephardic so I think my home is one of those rare homes that you see foods like rice and beans served, besides brisket…we have both brisket and lamb…which I don’t think anyone does that…’cause we cater to both sides of the family. There’s two dishes in particular that I think I’ve never heard of outside of my family. One of them is called Mina…and it’s a spinach matzoh dish… not entirely sure….but it’s amazing. And then the other one is Singato and that’s like mushrooms and meat and all sorts of good stuff…I don’t know what’s in it….but it’s Sephardic.”

Background: The informant notes that it is particularly interesting that her Ashkenazi mother and Sephardic father jointly contribute to the Passover meal because they are two different global denominations of Judaism. She remembers that when she was younger, her family wouldn’t serve the traditional Sephardic dishes because her older Ashkenazi relatives weren’t as accepting of these dishes as “traditional.” The informant prefers the Sephardic food served at dinner because there are more variations in the dish (vegetables, meat, grains, etc.) The informant’s family hosts over 50 people for dinner each year. She notes that it can be offensive to the hosts when a guest doesn’t eat a dish that is served.

Performance Context: I sat at my desk while the informant sat across from me in a chair.

My Thoughts: The unification of two branches of Judaism, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, is noteworthy because these affiliations are infamous for not collaborating on religious methods concerning diet, prayer, ritual, and more. Ashkenazi Jews are a European denomination especially prevalent in Poland, Russia, France, while Sephardic Jews have majority of their communities in Spain, Portugal, and Turkey. Folk foodways are an interesting way to unify multiple globalized traditions. The informant noted that her older relatives were not so welcoming of this collaboration because it wasn’t as “traditional.” A widely accepted sentiment, “non-traditonal” is usually understood as imposing on an individual’s personal tradition. Of course a tradition is unique to the individual, so Sephardic foodways and Ashkenazi foodways are each traditional, but bringing together both foodways at one time became a new tradition which required adjustment.

Passover Tradition: A Modern Haggadah

Main Piece: “So my dad makes these…um…books with all the different prayers that you… um… do on Passover and it has all that information but it also has little fun snippits in it including a festive front cover with my family’s pictures having to do with the biblical story in some way. And they often feature my horse and in the past, my dog, with matzoh in their mouths. So that’s always fun. And it usually includes some sort of news information on what’s happening in the world today.”

Background: The informant says these books have been used as long as she can remember (at least 21 years). She says her father likes making people laugh and likes to personalize the books with photos of their animals because he wants Passover to be enjoyable. According to the informant, her father also likes to share his political viewpoints concerning current events to inspire conversation during dinner. Each member of the table looks through the book at the seder. Her father uses the book, in Hebrew referred to as “haggadah,” in a traditional but contemporary way. It is read back to front, like the Torah. The informant also notes that her father keeps the book a surprise until the night of the dinner.

Performance Context: I sat at my desk while the informant sat across from me in a chair.

My Thoughts: The informant’s father places value on celebrating the holiday, rather than simply reciting the Hebrew prayers and practicing the rituals. Instead, he makes the books relevant, surprising, and humorous in a modern context. Hosting a Passover dinner for many people of many backgrounds is difficult, but engaging the entire table is even more of a challenge. The informant’s celebration of Passover is unique to her family. It has been tradition for over 21 years and incorporates a sense of enjoyment and festivity. The informant’s father has adapted the original haggadah to fit a contemporary context, considering current events, humor, and the guests’ engagement. The personalization of the books is similar to a copyright. There is a sense of ownership in this creative work, shared only with the guests at the Passover dinner.

Handgame: Miss Suzy

Main Piece: (sung) “Miss Suzy had a baby/ she named him Tiny Tim/ she put him in the bathtub/ to see if he could swim/ he drank up all the water/ he ate up all the soap/ he tried to eat the bathtub/ but it wouldn’t go down his throat (giggles)/ miss Suzy called the doctor/ miss Suzy called the nurse/ miss Suzy called the lady/ with the alligator purse….uhhhh…..oh yeah ok….measles said the doctor/ mumps said the nurse… haha that’s terrible… pizza said the lady/ with the alligator purse.”

Background: The informant initially learned this handgame on the playground in elementary school from her friends. The piece would be performed on the playground during recess or occasionally in the hallway. The informant finds the piece entertaining and humorous. She remembers learning the song and finding it all so random, making little sense. This piece is sung while playing a handgame, a repetitive motion between partners clapping their hands together. The informant says this is usually performed between two young girls. She says it was a popular song among the group of girls she atteneded elementary school with. The game would become more advanced as it would speed up and test who could keep up.

Performance Context: I sat across the informant in my living room as she told me the piece.

My Thoughts: This handgame seems to be utilized as a way of defining in-group versus out-group members (i.e. as the game advances, less and less participants are included). The rhyme itself, as the informant contends, does not completely make sense. Its lyrics are a bit morbid, but is sung in a child-like tune, and is best known in the context of an elementary school playground. The informant alludes to the ways in which childhood folklore can be somewhat explicit, exploring themes of adulthood (i.e. morbidity, illness, death). Although the lyrics of the handgame are somehwat grave, the informant was an innocent receiver and teller and enjoyed participating in the folklore.

Gesture: “Sí T’Ancagliu”

Main Piece: “So, also in Italy, I noticed that when someone feels intense…um…either love or fear or…um…trying to control themselves, they take their index finger, they bend it, and they put it in their mouth and they bite it. It amazed me that they’d hurt themsleves in order to control themselves.”

Background: The informant, who grew up in Italy, would see this most often in the context of her friend group. It was common to perform this gesture when wanting to regulate an emotion. The informant noted that it was important that this gesture was done by the individual, not another person, because this illustrates the indpendence of emotional regulation. When asked why one would bite the index finger, rather than another finger, the informant responded that it might be because the index finger is the most prominent and most used.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: It seems, to me, that this gesture is one of autonomy and control. The informant notes that the index finger is a significant component of this gesture since it is the most commonly used finger. The biting of this important, useful finger indicates a sort of punishing and masochistic approach to emotion. I wonder if this gesture is a means of inhibiting the emotion, rather than regulation. Oftentimes, it is culturally unacceptable to show emotion, so this gesture may be a reflection of the stigma of emotional expression.

Gesture: “Delicious”

Main Piece: “So, when an Italian loves something he or she’s eating, they…um…express satisfaction by taking their index finger [laughs] and putting it at their cheek and going like this [motions twisting of index finger on cheek and puckering lips]. And that’s supposed to show how much they think what they’re eating is delicious.”

Background: The informant noticed this gesture among family and friends eating a meal. She enjoys this gesture because it’s so unfamiliar in comparison to an American gesture of satisfaction. Instead of rubbing our bellies or smacking our lips, the informant notes, “it is mistifying why we would point to our cheeks, but also makes sense since we eat with our mouths.” This gesture is recognized as a huge compliment to whoever made the meal and is also a way of connecting with the other members of the table eating the meal.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: I am somewhat familiar with the importance and value of cooking and sharing a meal in Italy; preparing the dishe(s), inviting the guests, and sharing the meal are all important components of the gathering. The informant’s comparison of an American gesture of satisfaction versus an Italian’s, touches upon the subtlty of Italian expression. Rather than a loud (perhaps rude) smacking of the lips or shameless rubbing of the stomach, the Italian gesture is more subdued. The complimentary aspect of the gesture places value on the meal and the company one shares the meal with. The gesture was informally inherited by the informant in a social context. Although she only uses it when surrounded by people who understand it or use it themselves, she remembers it as a significant piece of folklore.

Gesture: “Occhio”

Main Piece: “When Italians want to point out cleverness, they use a gesture rather than words. They take their finger and they pull down on the bottom of their eye, which opens the eye more, and that indicates that this person is clever in the sense that they are sly. There’s another way…I’m not positive…to pull the cheek down to open the eye.”

Background: The informant would often see this gesture when people would try to speak about another person without using words. According to the informant, instead of verbally communicating, a physical gesture is used because it is universal and non-confrontational. This gesture isn’t always used as a compliment, it can be a mark of dissaproval. This gesture is done to another person, communicating this thought of cleverness about the other.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at a table outside.

My Thoughts: Using a physical gesture as a medium of foklore is a noteworthy method of communication. Its physical nature, rather than verbal, can be comprehended universally, as the informant noted. The opening of the eye seems to be a watchful, all-knowing way of letting the receiver know his/her slyness is recognized. Although this gesture may not mean the same things in a variation of contexts, the eye is the watcher, the giver of sight and truth. It is also interesting that this mark of cleverness is not always a compliment. Being sly versus being clever is a mark of acceptable versus unacceptable.

For further reference see: for alternative explanation of the gesture.

Riddle: Shadow

Main Piece: “What follows you everywhere when you’re walking, sleeping, flying, jumping, falling….um…but stays still when you’re not moving? That part I kind of made up. [Pause]. The answer is: shadow. And that’s it.”

Background Information: River, a nine year old boy, heard this riddle from his friends Ruby and Sky in Idaho. His friends told him the riddle when they were hanging out together. When I asked him what he enjoyed about the riddle, he said he didn’t think it was funny, but he did think it was challenging.

Performance Context: River sat across from me at his dining room table. He was relaxed telling me this riddle and focused on his telling of the riddle.

My Thoughts: I, personally, appreciated this riddle as it is tricky with a satisfying answer. River told this riddle well- he paused in the appropriate place of the riddle, expecting an answer from the recipient (me). River is in 4th grade, so there is often time to tell stories to friends at recess, lunch, etc. According to River, riddles are commonly told on the playground. It’s almost as if the teller sits atop of the hierarchy of the playground, with the wisdom and power of the answer. River seems to only tell riddles to friends he trusts. Since he admits he’s not good at keeping secrets, he wouldn’t tell the riddle to anyone who might use it against him (i.e. someone who might claim ownership of the riddle). The riddle is pretty general- its answer doesn’t only appeal to a certain group or have any quips that are specific to one context. It’s broadness allows for inclusive understanding.

Riddle: Foreheads

Main Piece: “There is a pool…no there is a clear pool…with no people in it. Twenty people jump in. And twenty four heads pop up. How is that possible? There are no people in the pool…wait delete that…the answer is twenty four heads pop up…how is that possible? And then I don’t really know how to tell you the answer…I do actually…the answer is: there is really…do CAPS for this… twenty four HEADS…that’s it….wait…yes that’s it”

Background Information: The informant is nine years old. He is a little socially awkward, so his speech may seem choppy. He heard this riddle in Idaho from his friends, Ruby and Sky. He likes this riddle because he says, “it’s challenging and it’s a good play on words.” The informant continues to tell this riddle to his friends at school.

Performance Context: The informant sat across from me at his dining room table.

My Thoughts: The informant seems to enjoy this riddle and want to share it with me because of the ways words can have multiple meanings. He notes the ways in which trickery through riddles challenges traditional notions of understanding language. His friends passed the folklore to him and now he passes it onto his friends as well. Once a receiver of the folklore, the informant is now the teller, using a verbal method transfer this piece of folklore.

Annual Christmas Dinner

Main Piece: “At the end of the Christmas term in December in school…um…everyone would have to sing in the choir. So a big choir was assembled and everyone had to sing in it in a carol service…so we’d sing a lot of carols. And then afterwards, we would have a nice dinner which was probably the only nice dinner we’d have that term. And then we would each be given a Christmas pudding to take home to our families.”

Background: The informant says the tradition went on about 100 years before he attended boarding school (in England) and continued until the school no longer existed. He says he enjoyed singing the carols because this was the time everyone began to feel Christmas had arrived, even though it was still a week before Christmas. The informant says, “everyone loved the frivolity and the presents they’d get on Christmas.” He remembers that the dinner was infinitely better than the typical dinner, but would fall short of a nice Christmas dinner today. The meal included meat, potatoes, and vegetables. The dinner was noteworthy to the informant because it was the best dinner all term and he enjoyed everyone’s company before they left for winter break.

Performance Context: We spoke over the phone.

My Thoughts: Because the informant was not fond of the typical boarding school dinner, the Christmas dinner was especially exceptional. The tradition was rooted in routine: singing in the choir followed by a dinner that remained the same meat, potatoes, and vegetables, and sending each boy home with a Christmas pudding. It is remarkable that this tradition persisted as long as it did. The informant recalls his anticipation of this annual dinner as it was much more luxurious than what he was used to. The  dinner (singing carols, eating a nice meal, enjoying company) brings to mind a classic retail image of Christmas.