Author Archives: Anna Shakeshaft

Afghan Parable: Blindness and Truth

Main Piece: “So once my mom told me a story about a group of boys playing near a bridge. So they see a blind kid… um… and they ask why God would make this boy blind? And they feel very sorry for him. So in this story they ask God, ‘why did you make this boy blind?’ and then they tell God, ‘you should give him sight.’ So God does. God gives the boy sight. And then the boys are very pleased with themselves… uh… so they go to the top of the bridge because they have a game of jumping off of it…it’s a low bridge. But the blind boy who now can see has set up sharpened sticks underneath the bridge. So that when the boys jump, they all die.”

Background: The informant’s mother recently told her this story after her grandfather died a few months ago. Her mother had been told this story by her father as a cautionary tale about coming to the U.S. The informant says her mother understood this parable as an implication to not always trust what you think you know. The informant understands it’s meaning to be: “don’t question God ever because purpose is not in our hands.”

Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.

My Thoughts: A generational parable has survived through the family’s telling. The story’s dark nature evokes fear in the receiver of the story. I understand the telling of it as partly religious, partly cautionary, and partly moralistic. I find it interesting that the informant’s mother was reminded of the parable after her father’s death. The symbolism of blindness in terms of truth is a consistent metaphor in moralistic tales. Also important to note is the hesitance to trust American culture as an immigrant. I understand this story as told outside the context of religion, implying more about belief and trust than religion and morals.

Yiddish Jinx: “Kneina Hura”

Main Piece: “So in the Jewish tradition… it’s really a Yiddish term… so I think more of the older generation identifies with it and it’s been passed down my family from my grandparents and, so, the term is ‘kneina hura’. It’s basically what we would consider a jinx and so it’s when you say something in advance and then if something is going well but then you’re like don’t say it… that’s kneina hura. I’m trying to think of an example. So it might be if you have an event coming up over the weekend and you look at the forecast and you say oh what great weather– my mom would say don’t say that, that’s kneina hura because then it may rain.”

Background: The informant heard this term from her mother and grandmother, who still uses Yiddish. The informant has very little knowledge of Yiddish, while her mother knows only what she’s heard from her own mother. Growing up, the informant intepreted this saying as a way to ward off a jinx. Her mother occassionally uses Yiddish informally, but her grandmother uses Yiddish terminology quite often. The informant notes that jinxes are important to her family because they believe that despite the inevitability of things going wrong, there is some higher authority with control over these events.

Performance Context: The informant sat in a chair while I sat at my desk.

My Thoughts: The informant’s piece of folklore has been passed down orally directly through the grandmother, who is the family’s holder of Yiddish terminology. Yiddish is considered a dying, or even dead, language with little contemporary usage. The informant herself rarely uses Yiddish and can only remember a few phrases from her grandmother, so it seems unlikely that this saying will be passed down generationally. The superstition and value placed on the power of the jinx is interesting, as the evil eye (a source of protection against harm) is quite dominant in navigating chance and fortune in Jewish tradition.

Shrove Tuesday

Main Piece: “Shrove Tuesday is…uh…the last day before Lent. Lent…uh…precedes Easter. Lent lasts about I think a month and during Lent one does not eat as much. So one is more…um…frugal about eating. So the last day before Lent is called Shrove Tuesday and on that day, people eat a lot of pancakes. And the pancakes are tossed in a pan and people like to see how high they can toss them. They usually have lemon on them…squeezed lemon…they’re very nice. And that is the only time of the year that we ate pancakes, just that one day.”

Background: The informant, who grew up in the English countryside, began celebrating Shrove Tuesday as early as he can remember, but stopped around age 16, as the tradition was dying out. He celebrated this holiday at home with family. He notes that eating pancakes was the most enjoyable part of Shrove Tuesday. When asked about the name of the holiday, the informant said “shrove” comes from “shrive” which means to “absolve,” and in terms of this holiday, he thinks it means absolving one’s sins. However, the informant says he and his family did not celebrate Shrove Tuesday in that way.

Performance Context: We spoke over the phone.

My Thoughts: The informant understands Shrove Tuesday as a dying tradition. It seems to have already taken on another form when the informant was celebrating the holiday. As the informant noted, the name “Shrove Tuesday” didn’t accurately describe the holiday he celebrated. Most interesting and special to the informant was the pancake meal, since it was a rare meal to have. As the tradition began to be less celebrated by the informant, the foodways were the only particularly noteworthy component of the holiday. I think of the ways “Shrove Tuesday” in England parallels “Fat Tuesday” in the U.S., where the same notions of celebratory eating are present before the culmination of Lent.

Boxing Day

Main Piece: “The day after Christmas is Boxing Day. And…uh…it used to be that the people who had more would, on this day, give some of the food that was left over from Christmas to the poor, so some of the food would be boxed up and taken to places where poor people either lived or went for food. The original purpose of this day was not fulfilled when I was a child. It was probably that way 100 years before I was born. It was a holiday in England where people would get together and have another lunch with other relatives or friends. So usually on Christmas day, one would have…um…lunch with your immediate family and you’d open presents. On Boxing Day, you’d usually go to another relative’s or the relatives would come to you. So two big meals- one on Christmas Day and one on Boxing Day.”

Background: The informant believes that because Boxing Day became a national holiday, people forgot about it’s original purpose. Instead, people like to celebrate because no one has to work on Boxing Day. He says it became insulting to take food to the poor on Boxing Day and there were no longer places to take the food, anyways. The informant’s family would celebrate Boxing Day with relatives and friends. The informant enjoyed “the company, another nice meal, and the spirit of Christmas because the decorations stayed up.” Boxing Day was celebrated with a late lunch of the Christmas Day leftovers and afterwards, he was able to play with the presents he’d received on Christmas.

Performance Context: We spoke over the phone.

My Thoughts: Perhaps since England has become a much wealthier country, its holidays have become financial sources of marketed celebrations. Instead of the original charitable intention of Boxing Day, it is now a reason to use Christmas leftovers for another celebration. I find it interesting that it is actually taboo now to share leftovers with a less fortunate community. Similar to the ways Appurdai explains an Indian interpretation of leftovers as forbidden, England has adopted a culture of impoliteness surrounding leftovers. I remember my own interpretation of Boxing Day as another gift box(!) as it was celebrated in my home. Boxing Day traditions remain as a continued celebration with family and friends, engaging in shared meals and gift exchanges.

Ritual: Water

Main Piece: “One ritual that my family partakes in is when we go on long trips or vacations. So basically when you leave the home for an extended period of time, someone will throw a cup of water while you’re walking away from your house, so, to the back of your feet kind of”

Background: This is a ritual for the informant and her family. The informant was born in the U.S. and her parents were born and raised in Afghanistan. The family has been in the United States for about 30 years but still practices many pieces of Afghan folklore. The informant thinks this particular ritual uses water as a symbol of purity for leaving a place with “good and clean intentions”. She notes that this ritual takes place at the doorway.

Performance Context: The informant and I had lunch together and sat at a table across from each other.

My Thoughts: This Afghan ritual uses the symbols of water and the threshold of the doorway. Besides the notions of water as a symbol of purity, I understand the threshold of the doorway as significant as an entry and exit point. It is interesting that the informant and her family continue to practice this ritual, even in the U.S. The informant mentioned how rarely her family takes vacations and trips. I wonder if her family may have a reluctance to go to new places, as the informant noted earlier that their immigration and assimilation to the U.S. was somewhat troubling and disturbing to their culutral beliefs and traditions. I also intepret the ritual as a combination of valuing the past and looking forward to the present. The U.S. is known to have a forward looking mentality, while countries of the Middle East hold the past in high regard.