Author Archives: Belton McMurrey

About Belton McMurrey

ANTH 333

Finland Lunch Cookout Setup

The following is a recorded observation centering on a local guide’s preparation of a lunch area/cooking of said lunch while on a weeklong dog sledding excursion in the northern Finnish wilderness, an area known as Lapland.

 

To provide context, in the late winter months of Lapland, the snow can reach depths of up to five feet, unable to melt and having compiled for many months before. It is not uncommon anywhere in this area that one can take a single step off of a packed, stable path and immediately sink waist deep into the snow.

 

After anchoring our dog sleds and unboxing containers of food, the guide took four sizable branches from a nearby shrub and sharpened a single end of each branch to a point with his knife.

 

These four branches were left to the side as the guide then stepped into the deep snow and began to dig an eating area with his hands. This proceeded for the better part of twenty minutes. When finished, the hole was about eight feet across and four feet deep. Considerably flat on the bottom as to allow for a fire, the sloped sides of the hole allowed for comfortable seating at a safe distance from any burning wood.

 

Firewood kindling was then gathered from the adjacent birch forest from whatever available wood could be found. Primary logs, previously cut at the cabin we had left that morning, were then assembled into a square, three-tiered stack. Using the kindling to help foster the ignition of the larger logs, the guide sparked the blunt metallic end of his knife against a flint and subsequently lit the fire.

 

The two of us then took the sharpened sticks and skewered sausages onto the pointed ends, roasting them over the fire until ready to eat.

 

After the course of eating, the heat of the fire had allowed the wood to sink considerably into the snow, allowing any remaining burning logs to be covered with ease with only a kick of snow.

 

What stood out in this entire situation to me is the inherent making use of one’s surroundings for the sake of providing supplemental comforts alongside necessary functions, such as eating. While it would have been easy enough to simply start the fire on the tightly packed dog sled path, the seating would not be nearly as comfortable as a padded slope against which to lean, made possible by digging the hole. It is also important to note that following 20-30km of captaining a dog sled team over rough terrain make any such indulgences worthwhile expenditures of energy. The cooking of the sausages goes the same way in terms of making use of one’s environment, turning a simple tree branch into a useful tool without which roasting a sausage would not be practically possible. The rooting in practicality and makings of any available comfort reflected to me an overall Lappish spirit of a similar nature.

Yiddish Prayer for the Dead

The following is a prayer, the traditional Jewish prayer for the dead, as given by my godfather on the birthday of my late brother.

 

As he explained, the prayer is usually reserved for the day of the deceased’s passing. However, given that my late brother’s passing came only two weeks after his birthday, and the fact that my godfather and I would not be able to see each other on that date, he opted for conducting the prayer on the birthday night instead.

 

The same prayer was given a number of weeks the year prior after my brother’s actual passing. Although my godfather gave the prayer in the presence of his own family on that day, he repeated it during a visit on my behalf.

 

Given before seating at dinner, the prayer is repeated each consecutive year onward. However, it is reserved for kin, not given for friends and familiar faces.

 

Standing at the dinner table with our food before us, my godfather proceeded to recite the prayer (from memory), in its original Yiddish, which is also his first language:

 

Yitgaddal veyitqaddash shmeh rabba. Be’alma di vra khir’uteh. Veyamlikh malkhuteh, behayekhon uvyomekhon uvhaye dekhol bet Yisrael, be’agala uvizman qariv. Ve’imru: Amen.

 

Yehe shmeh rabba mevarakh le’alam ul’alme ‘almaya.

 

Yitbarakh veyishtabbah veyitpaar veyitromam veyitnasse veyithaddar veyit’alleh veyithallal shmeh dequdsha berikh hu. Le’ella min kol birkhata veshiratea tushbehata venehemata daamiran be’alma. Ve’imru: Amen.

 

Titqabbal tzelotehon uva’utehon d’khol bet Yisrael qodam avuhon di bishmayya. Ve’imru: Amen.

 

Yehe shelama rabba min shemayya, vehayyim ‘alainu v’al kol Yisrael. Ve’imru: Amen.

 

O’she shalom bimromav, hu ya’ase shalom ‘alenu, v’al kol Yisra’el. Ve’imru: Amen.

 

After this point, he took out a small candle and lit it, explaining that after the prayer, the candle is allowed to burn for 24 hours, and then extinguished.

 

The candle was then set in the center of the dining table. However, he explained, tradition does not call for the candle to be placed anywhere in particular. Given that the prayer is said before seating for the dinner meal, it is most often placed among where the meal is being eaten as a matter of simple convenience.

 

Following the recitation of the prayer and the lighting of the candle, we sat and ate.

At the same time next year, it will be done once more.

 

The English translation of the prayer has been included:

 

Exalted and hallowed be His great Name.

 

Throughout the world which He has created according to His Will. May He establish His kingship, bring forth His redemption and hasten the coming of His Moshiach.

 

In your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the entire House of Israel, sword, famine and death shall cease from us and from the entire Jewish nation, speedily and soon, and say, Amen.

 

May His great Name be blessed forever and to all eternity. Blessed and praised, glorified, exalted, and extolled, honored, adored and lauded be the Name of the Holy One, blessed be He.

 

Beyond all the blessings, hymns, praises and consolations that are uttered in the world, and say, Amen.

 

Upon Israel, and upon our sages, and upon their disciples, and upon all the disciples of their disciples, and upon all those who occupy themselves with the Torah, here or in any other place, upon them and upon you, may there be abundant peace, grace, kindness, compassion, long life, ample sustenance and deliverance, from their Father in heaven; and say, Amen.

 

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and a good life for us and for all Israel; and say, Amen.

 

He who makes peace in His heavens, may He make peace for us and for all Israel, and say, Amen.”

 

 

What is interesting to note about the prayer itself is that it does not acknowledge the dead at all and is instead entirely an exaltation towards God. The significance of the prayer is undeniable given its exclusive reservation for family members, but to not mention death at all might prompt a double glance.

 

My uncle explained this as an almost humorous consideration, but elaborated that the absence of mentioning death in a prayer whose very purpose centers on it is that remembrance is almost implied, and that a reminder of the person’s passing is not necessary. I found it noteworthy, then, that the traditional prayer for the dead draws the entirety of its significance in the symbolism of its name and subsequent use, with the actual components of the prayer itself important to a lesser degree.

 

A topic that is often joked upon between my godfather and me is the fact that I am an Episcopalian Christian, and he a Russian Orthodox Jew. It is interesting to consider, then that such a highly specialized and ritualistic prayer may be conducted between members of two religions with a distinct barrier between them. In this case, circumstances of love supersede those of preconceived notions of theological leanings.

Bible Study Prayer

Each Wednesday, I meet with a small group of fellow university students for a peer-led Bible study at the USC Catholic Center. Each week has a similar layout in terms of procedure, although in this particular meeting, the primary topic was centered and prayer for the recent passing of a close friend and classmate. Because her death greatly affected many of my fellow classmates (and needless to say, her family, who I also knew), much of the prayers given were subsequently aimed in consideration of these others.

 

The following frames the course of a typical Bible-study meeting procedure, although in the case of an exceptional incident:

 

The same eight members of the study meet in the same room, a quiet second-floor conference area, each week beginning at 6:50 p.m., and lasting for around 45 minutes to an hour. Our study’s leader, Javier, had brought me into the group the preceding year. He starts the session having already brought a dealing of snack foods (Oreos, chips & dip, etc.), seating the members around a circular table.

 

The meeting is formally started with the members bowing their heads, crossing their hearts, and reciting in unison the ‘Hail Mary’ traditional catholic prayer, which goes as follows:

 

Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou amongst women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

 

Each member then goes one-by-one relaying their personal ‘highs and lows’ since the last meeting, followed by an ‘coming to God moment,’ meant to illustrate an incidence or realization of spirituality and faith.

 

At this point in the meeting, the leader then transitions to a pre-selected lesson, involving the reading of a particular passage of scripture that exemplifies the day’s lesson, followed by a group discussion of what in the passage stood out during the reading, what conclusions they have drawn, or otherwise. This day’s topic involved a passage from the book of Philippians (2: 5-8),  that highlights the humbled passage of Jesus through the realm of man by taking on the form of a man himself.

 

Two smaller, supplementary readings are typically held that reinforce the day’s lesson. However, the leader took the opportunity to discuss the topic of my passed friend, which I had disclosed to him earlier. The group then held a loose discussion of life and death from their various points of view.

 

Each meeting is subsequently closed with an extended prayer from the leader himself. He took the opportunity to center it exclusively on the topic of the passed friend.

 

While the circumstances did not figure appropriate to record the prayer in its entirety, the leader’s points of acknowledgment and hearkening to God included my own emotional health, that of the deceased parents and her friends/classmates at school, as well as for potential victims of suicide (given that these were the circumstances under which she passed).

 

Perhaps the most important aspect of this particular meeting to analyze is the adaptation of a group’s normal schedule to briefly accommodate and address a member’s trying circumstances. In this case, it was to provide a sense of comfort and counsel by means of spirituality, along with the personalization of holding it among people familiar with each other.

 

The leader’s extended prayer stood out to me the most, for unlike the established prayer recited at the start of each meeting, this prayer was devised entirely in the moment, lasting for a total of five uninterrupted minutes devoid of ‘ums’ or silences in thought.

 

A small, but important point that can also be acknowledged in the general scheme of the meetings is the inclusion of snacks as an attracting factor. By providing food, the study leader is able to provide an incentive for members to arrive and enjoy treats, but also to keep hands and minds from wandering or growing idle during/in between each topic of study.

Dropping the Baton sports belief

The following interaction illustrates a folk belief relating to a former student-athlete in high-school track & field relating coach/student view that dropping a relay baton during practice will bode ill for the actual race.

 

For convenience, the interviewee has been marked as ‘A’, and the documenter has been marked as ‘Q.’ The interaction proceeded as such:

 

A., I don’t know if this is true for every track and field team, but if you drop the baton like if you were on the relay team and you dropped it any time during the week before the track meets, during practice. Then you’d have to run a mile, because then for sure if you drop the baton during practice then for sure you were gonna drop the baton during the actual race.

 

My coach really believed it, and she would get like severely distraught any time someone dropped the baton, because it was…sacred.

 

I also dropped the baton and had to run a mile.

Actually, I dropped the baton multiple times. People really shame you for that.

Q. You learned all this from your coach?

A. Yeah.

Q. What does it mean to your coach?

A. What does it mean to my coach? It means we’ve just lost.

 

I thought it was just that particular coach, too. But we had 3 different coaches in 4 years when I was there, and all of them were like ‘you drop the baton, you go run a mile.

 

And I’m like, what? There’s no correlation.

I get the whole ‘practice the way you perform’ thing, but I also think that just because you drop the baton during practice that doesn’t mean you’re gonna drop it during the race.

 

The caution surrounding and seemingly arbitrary enforcement of a folk belief on the part of the coaches illustrated here pulls back the deep-seeded roots of those that inhabit the field of sports, in which the beliefs can take a limitless amount of forms.

 

As indicated here, most of them center on the matter of luck and future implications of success/victory/winning, along with their mirror image counterparts. The matter of keeping the baton in one’s hand does not determine whether one will win, but dropping it will certainly determine if the team should lose.

 

The most interesting aspect is the enforcement of the belief from multiple coaches throughout the years who, presumably, would not have colluded with each other for something so trivial. However, such consistency across rotation highlights the strength of certain sports beliefs no matter who or where.

Demon Dog story

Below is a supernatural story told to me by a classmate whose family hails from the Mexican state of Michoacán, the subject of the story being her grandmother at a young age encountering an evil supernatural entity, possibly a demon, with her siblings.

For the sake of convenience, I have identified the interviewer in the following interaction as ‘Q’, and the subject as ‘A.’

The story was told as follows:

Q. Let’s hear a ghost story.

A. So In Mexico, my grandma told me this story- my grandma was born in Mexico. Um, my grandma told me that at a certain time, so you had to cross this river to get back, but her and her brothers and sisters, they would go and get fruit. But like, you had to cross the river- it was a long way. So you basically had to leave early to get back before sunset and you have to cross this river 

If you were to cross it before sunset you would see a dog, but it was like a demon dog. And it would turn its head and look back at you and like turn its head upside down

She said one time, her and her sisters, they were fighting. They were fighting over a banana. And the sun had already set, and the oldest sister was all like, if y’all stop fighting and we all stay quiet and be calm, the dog won’t come.

But because her and her sister were fighting over a banana, the dog ended up appearing. Like, she said that they saw the dog, and uh, the only way they could outrun him was to like, swim in the river. So they had to swim in the river. The dog ended up catching up to them, but by the time he did, they were already like, in their house. And what they had to do was all like, get together, under a table, and just like apologize to each other and like hug each other.

So once all of them, basically like, were good, the dog- they just stopped hearing the barking. 

Q. What part of Mexico was this in?

A. Michoacan 

What stands out about this story is its similarity to many classic tales in utilizing supernatural elements to form a moral or some kind of concluding lesson.

Whether the incident happened or not is not the matter. What does matter is the scenario of a grandmother giving her granddaughter a story involving the escape and overcoming of assailing evil forces by the power of familial love, something that could only have been accomplished if each of the family set aside their qualms and focused on the issue at hand rather than continue to fight.

 

Such small, personal tales demonstrate the power of narrative in illustrating lessons for successive generations in a manner that can be properly understood and perceived in a child’s eyes, hence the presence of a monster (the demon dog).