Author Archives: Arielle Sitrick

Russian Sinus Remedy

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Russian / American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: LA, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/05/15
Primary Language: Russian
Other Language(s): English, French, some Hebrew

The informant is a 19-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. I mentioned that homeopathic remedies were a form of folklore and she told me about this remedy her mom taught her.

 

Informant: “I got colds a lot when I was a kid, so I remember this one very well. My mom used to take eggs, boil them and then take the warm boiled eggs—two of them—in a towel. You use two because they go on either side of your nose so that your sinuses get released. It’s super weird sounding and it looks funny too. But it works! It actually felt really really nice. It was super comforting.

Interviewer: “Wow, I would never think to do that! But it makes sense.

Informant: “Yea, well Russians had them, the eggs, because chickens were a thing they had. Even in the Soviet Union where there was so much poverty and people had almost nothing. They still had chickens! So I guess this was a way to alleviate sinus pressure when it was cold as hell and people would get sick.”

 

Thoughts:

What the informant said about eggs being something readily available to people in Russia during the time of the Soviet Union makes a lot of sense. Homeopathic remedies from different places often involve plants or food with similar properties, but that grow in different regions, native to whatever area the person giving the remedy is from. This says a lot about the nature of folklore, and once again reminds me of the film, Whose Song is it?, in the variety of folklore concerning one topic, or the variances of a particular piece of folklore.

 

Russian Drinking Custom – Toasting

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: LA, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/28/15
Primary Language: Russian
Other Language(s): English, French, some Hebrew

The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she said when I asked about her step-daughter’s wedding a few years ago, of which I was in attendance.

 

Informant: “Drinking is really big in Russian culture—you probably know that. We have a lot of family dinners and there is always drinking, of wine or vodka. Guest will bring wine or the host will bring out their favorite wines. My parents actually have a whole spreadsheet of the different wines in their wine closet. Since drinking is so much a part of Russian culture, there are traditions that go along with it. The biggest thing I can think of, I think, would be toasts. Like, there are certain traditions of what toasts you say in what order. Second toast is usually for the host. The first toast is always for the occasion you are gathered for, and second for the host. The third one is for those who are at sea.”

 

Interviewer: “Are there lots of people at sea…?”

 

Informant: “No. We say ‘at sea’, but it’s really more a reference to those who are not with us—either dead or not the at the dinner table.”

 

Interviewer: “Hmm, that’s really interesting that the toast for people not at the table is the ‘at sea’ toast. Do you have any idea why that is?

 

Informant: “No, I don’t know. I mean, drinking culture was a big think in Russia in general. And I guess originally there may have been a lot of traders? Or people at sea? What I think is so distinct about Russian drinking is this tradition of you can’t drink unless you toast. You have to validate your drinking with a toast.”

 

Thoughts:

What my informant said about toasts being a way of validating drinking stuck with me. I feel like a lot of folklore, or festivals and rituals, at least, is centered in validation—validating customs already set in place, validating a relationship or new union to be had, validating a new stage in a person’s life, validating one’s entering adulthood, etc. What is sometimes seen as merely paying homage to an earlier time, or to a certain religion one follows, usually has more influence than that.

 

When I asked my informant about why the third toast is said for those “at sea”, when no one I know of her family is actually off at sea, it seemed like the first time the informant had really been considering the question. This illustrates the tendency not to question the traditions and the folklore one grows up with, contrasted with the tendency many people have to critique or ridicule other traditions and folklore, ones the criticizing individual hasn’t grown up with. This speaks to the us them mentality that we see quite often with folklore—one example of the mentality’s presence is in practical jokes, a form of folklore that often serves as an initiation, or a demonstration of the tightness of one group and the outsider-ness of the one being pranked. However, it is worth noting that in the person being pranked, they are many times being initiated into the group of the pranksters…

 

For a slightly different interpretation of the third toast, see an article in the New York Times from 1995:

http://www.nytimes.com/1995/09/08/world/moscow-journal-glassy-eyed-etiquette-a-guide-to-russian-toasts.html.

Brisket and Kugel – “although they’re not as good as Marcia’s”

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 95
Occupation: Retired Advertising
Residence: Skokie, IL
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/05/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Some Yiddish

The informant is a 95-year old man who grew up in Davenport, right near downtown with his parents and two brothers. His father came over from Russia and owned a grocery store in Davenport. He is a father, grandfather, worked in advertising for 60 years, and loves baseball.

 

Interviewer: “Do you remember anything your mom used to cook?”

Informant: “Yes, she made brisket. It was so good.”

Interviewer: “Did she make it from a recipe?”

Informant: “No, she made it herself. And it was something her mom had taught her. It was so good, nobody could match it. She gave the recipe to Nancy way back when. She also made the keegal or kugel, whichever you call it, she made that on her own recipe.

Interviewer: “Is that the one Aunt Nancy uses at Seder?”

Informant: “Nancy has it, yes. She makes that one. Although it’s not quite as good as Marcia’s was.”

 

As with my previous collection of food-related folklore, I see a strong emotional connection to the discussion of food. This could be because the food talked about is usually something cooked by an immediate family member at some special occasion or holiday when family is gathered. So it isn’t so much the food alone that makes the informant emotional, but the memories tied up with the food. When a recipe has been passed down from family member to family member it only strengthens and nuances the connection to a food.

A Tree for the New Year

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Russian / American
Age: 19
Occupation: Student
Residence: LA, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/28/15
Primary Language: Russian
Other Language(s): English, French, some hebrew

The informant is a 21-year old student attending the University of California Berkeley. She is majoring in Media Studies and Journalism with a minor in Hebrew. She grew up in West Los Angeles with her two parents, immigrants from the Soviet Union. The following is what she shared with me about the Soviet way of celebrating New Year’s Eve.

 

Informant: “The Soviets made New Years the new holiday. They weren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas anymore, so they went around the rules and celebrated the secular holiday instead. They had a pine tree and Father snow (he was instead of Santa Claus). My family celebrates Soviet New Years still. A lot of us immigrated here—my mom and dad and both of their siblings and all of their kids. And my grandparents. So every New Year’s when I was growing up we would have a big family gathering with a tree—even though we are Jewish, I know it’s weird, but it’s not religious at all. It’s really just like a holdover from the Soviet Union. I got presents and my dad and grandpa always sang these long, hard-to-understand Russian songs.”

 

Thoughts:

This reminds me of Santeria, a syncretic religion in the Americas, centered around Yoruba-mythology and belief. When those who believed in Yoruba mythology were forced to convert to Catholocism, they began worshipping the Catholic Saints instead of the Yoruba Gods, at least in appearance. Rather, it seemed as though they were following along with the new rules imposed on them, but instead they were practicing their religion in disguise. The syncrasy of the religion came about, but the religion seems far more blended to outsiders than it is in practice.

People in the Soviet Union being prohibited from celebrating Christmas of other Christian holidays was a part of the Soviet anti religious campaign for state atheism. Given how much weight belief holds for many people and how so many customs, practices, and rituals are grounded in belief, it is unrealistic to extricate it from people.

 

Wooden Shoes for Sinterklaas

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American/ Dutch
Age: 66
Occupation: Retired Lawyer
Residence: LA, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/05/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Dutch, Spanish

The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

Informant: “St. Nicholas Day there is like December 7th or 8th. It was a secular holiday. I mean everybody, all the Jewish people (all 10% of them, the few left after the war), we all celebrated St. Nicholas day. So, your dad is in the Netherlands with us on St. Nicholas Day, we call it Sinterklaas there, and he looks out the window and says, ‘Oh yes, really secular holiday.’ There’s the St. Nick, whose you know, this cardinal. White haired cardinal all decked out. And then, Swarte Piet, which is Black Pete was a little black guy with him. On St. Nicholas Day in Holland we always put out our wooden shoes. We’d put out the wooden shoes because then they’d be filled with chocolate. They would do it really literally though. So if you were “bad” that year, you would actually get coal in your wooden shoe. Not like they do here in America with the stockings and presents. Even in the United States early on we would always get packages from the Netherlands before St. Nicholas Day.

 

Interviewer: “So could it be any shoes?”

 

Informant: “A wooden shoe! Instead of stockings it was the wooden shoes. If you were a bad kid, then St. Nicholas would put coal in your shoe as opposed to, you know, chocolates.”

 

Analysis: I remember in class we talked about most Christmas traditions being based on older Pagan festivals, and many religious holidays’ links with earth-cycle rituals. St. Nicholas Day being a secular ritual in the Netherlands could be an example of a Christmas tradition’s origins being based in pagan tradition, or it could also be an effect of Christianization of the area where the Netherlands is now.

 

The figure of Black Pete, or Swarte Piet as he is called in Dutch, really fascinates me. I did some research on him and found that there has actually been a good deal of controversy surrounding “Santa’s Black-faced Helper”, as a writer for NPR refers to the figure. It’s not just that there is a statue of a little black man next to the more favorably-sculpted Saint; each year, there is a Sinterklaas parade, during which several individuals in black face dance around as St. Nicholas’s helpers.

 

There are different stories as to why Swarte Piet is swarte. Some say it is because he was once the devil – this in and of itself is problematic in the context of blackface minstrelcy—that black is associated with the devil goes to support racial supremacy theories. Some say that Swarte Piet was a slave of Sinterklaas. Others say Piet is just dirty from sliding down too many chimneys helping St. Nicholas.

 

Regardless of how Piet became Swarte, in recent years there have been more and more people upset by the blackface tradition associated with Sinterklaas parades. It will be interesting to see how the controversy plays out. As of now, the Dutch courts have refused to intervene.

 

For more information on blackface in Sinterklaas celebrations see: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/12/01/367704573/santas-black-faced-helpers-are-under-fire-in-the-netherlands

“I’m Staying Another Week” – How Punchlines Pervade Daily Life

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 54
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Chicago, IL
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/05/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): none

The informant is a 54 year old woman, who has lived in the United States all her life. She was raised by her mother and has no siblings. She attended school through college, and lives in downtown Chicago with her husband. The following is what she described as “folkspeech” from her mother-in-law.

 

Informant: “It’s from a joke. So, whenever, if we were having a disagreement, like your uncle and I, about anything, and you’d ask your Grandma’s opinion about it. Like, “What do you think?” She’d say, “The soup’s not hot, the soup’s not cold, and I’m staying another week.” It was a punchline to a joke about a married couple whose mother-in-law is there visiting and won’t leave so they stage a fight to try and make her leave. She realizes what they’re doing so she says, “the soup’s not hot, the soup’s not cold, and I’m staying another week.” So whenever I would try to get her involved, that’s what she would do. She said that all the time.

 

Interviewer: “Do you know where she heard the joke?”

 

Informant: “Oh, from Grandpa, I’m sure. He had so many jokes, you remember.

 

Interviewer: “Of course. Do you know where he got his jokes?”

 

Informant: “He would hear them and I guess kind of mentally collect them to tell.

 

Thoughts: Initially I was unsure as to whether or not this was folklore. The phrase itself doesn’t seem very “folkloric” in nature; neither does the informant’s in-law’s use of the phrase. However, when I thought about the phrase again, I realized that it is a form of folklore. The phrase itself came from the punch line of a joke—something that people learn from other people—and the informant’s mother-in-law took the punch line into a different context, her daily life. This is a perfect example of how folklore can traverse across different mediums and how it can be applied in different ways.

 

“The Bagel Song” at Camp

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Illinois
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/25/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): Spanish

The informant is a 20-year old college sophomore at University of Michigan majoring in industrial and systems engineering. She went to sleep-away camp for several years and was excited to share some of her fond memories of it with me. One such memory is “the Bagel Song.”

 

“Bagels, doo doo doo

Bagels, doo doo doo

 

Bagels on Mars, Bagels on Venus

I got bagels in my…..

NOSE!

 

Bagels, doo doo doo

Bagels, doo doo doo

 

Bagels on the pier, bagels on the dock

I got bagels on my….

NOSE!

 

Bagels, doo doo doo

Bagels, doo doo doo

(The next person makes up a stanza similar to the first two, with provocative lyrics that make the listener think of something dirty, but that ends in NOSE

 

Interviewer: “Where did you learn the Bagel Song?”

Informant: “I remember my counselor one year teaching it to me and a few other campers. We thought it was totally hilarious. When I was a counselor a few years ago, I taught it to my campers too.”

Interviewer: “Where would you guys sing the song?”

Informant: “Oh gosh, all the time. Um, we would sing it when camp songs were song. Like at bonfires and before mealtimes when everyone was together waiting to eat. We would tease the cute male counselors with it too…”

Interviewer: “Did your counselor who taught you the song say where she learned it?”

Informant: “No. We never asked. But I do have a friend who went to an all-boys camp in Wisconsin who told me they had a variation of the song they would sing.

Interviewer: “Do you remember how the variation went?”

Informant: “Hmm. I think it was the same general principle. I think what was different was that the boys said “Bacon” instead of “bagel”? I’m not entirely sure though; it was a long time ago that I talked to my friend about it!”

 

Thoughts:

I see the Bagel song as a humorous song dealing with taboos of sex and sexuality. The song is especially funny because it makes the listener the one with the “dirty mind”, not the singer, as it is the listener who thinks the singer is going to make an obscene reference.

Oring talks about Children’s folklore (I would consider “The Bagel Song” fitting into this category) a good deal in Folk Groups and Folklore Genres. Ideas of childhood have been purified for a long time in American society, and the oppressiveness of the controlled environment in which children reside in can partially explain their dealing with the sexuality taboo, along with other taboos.

Love By Chainmail

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Italian
Age: 20
Occupation: Student
Residence: Los Angeles, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/25/15
Primary Language: Italian
Other Language(s): English

Chainmail is a fairly well-known form of folklore, and has been around for a long time. Chain mail letters can be anything from handwritten letters to emails to texts and are typically sent to a group with some sort of either beneficial or warning message attached, as incentive for the person on the receiving end to pass the message along to more people.

An example of such a message is one my roommate shared with me that had passed around our sorority. The message read:

“You have been visited by the ghost of Helen M. Dodge! Pass this on to ten sisters in the next five minutes and she will give you good luck for the rest of the week!”

 

Thoughts:

Chain mails seem to fit into the category of contagious magic and involve belief a great deal. They are contagious in that in order for the receiver to either alleviate any harm that may come, or to ensure any benefit, from having read the letter, he or she must pass it along to X amount of people. The magic of the letter passes along with it and integrates into the daily lives of those who receive it, or it at least claims to do so.

 

Chain mail letters are really interesting in their relation to belief because I would bet that if you asked a large group of people if they believe in the power of chain mail letters to affect their lives in either positive or negative ways, the majority would say no. However, these letters are constantly passed around. They can be fit into the category of superstitious as well as contagious magic—perhaps it is the fear that chain mail letters may in fact have some power, some magic, that drives people to continue passing them along.

This particular chain mail letter doesn’t run the risk of being harmful to the person receiving it in any way, but perhaps the receiving individual may feel that they are to be at a loss if they don’t pass it along.

Or, perhaps chain mail letters get passed around as a way of continuing community. They are a means of reaching out to 5, 10, 15 friends who you haven’t talked to in a while. Or the particular chain mail letter you have received is funny so you want to share it with three of your friends you think would find it hilarious. Chain mail gets a pretty bad rap, yet its continued existence makes me think there is some part of its communicative, outreaching nature that people like.

For another example of chain mail letters, see Dan Squier. The Truth About Chain Letters, 1990, Premier Publishers.

Variation on Popular Music in Elementary School Kids

--Informant Info--
Nationality: American
Age: 23
Occupation: Student
Residence: Laguna Niguel
Date of Performance/Collection: 04/25/15
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): spanish

The informant is a 23-year old Narrative Studies major at USC. He is from Laguna Niguel and attended primary and secondary school there, before attending USC.

 

Informant: “I used to babysit several kids from the local elementary schools by where I live. I remember several of them walking around their houses singing this variation of Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” [a popular pop song] along with variations of other popular songs like it. I mean there were other ones too, like parodies of other songs.,They were always really, like, childish—really PG. Never like Weird Al Yankovic style. So the Taio Cruz one, for example, went like, ‘I walked up to a/the subway guy/ He said Ay yo, don’t forget the mayo.’ I always thought it was really hilarious—these super popular, often inappropriate songs that the kids I babysat would hear and then spin into their own context.”

 

Thoughts:

It is logical that these elementary school students take what they hear around them and integrate it into their own context. To use this specific instance, the boy my informant babysat had heard the song “Dynamite” played and by some means—whether repeating it wrong, repeating it from a friend who had changed the lyrics, changing the lyrics as a sort of game, or by some other means—changed the song to pertain to things he could relate to. This song is a parody; it takes imitates and exaggerates the original, presumably for a comic effect. I’ve been parodying songs since I was in elementary school. Last class we watched clips of parodies and mash ups that have literally influenced revolutions (“Zenga, zenga” comes to mind). The influence of folklore, that often goes overlooked by society’s understanding of the word, is baffling.

“Oh Shenanigah Dah” Song

--Informant Info--
Nationality: Dutch / American
Age: 96
Occupation: Retired
Residence: Newport Beach, CA
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/12/15
Primary Language: Dutch
Other Language(s): English

“Oh, shenanigah dah, let’s play the guitar, go to the bazaar, ha ha ha ha

Oh shenanigah dah, let’s play the guitar, go to the bazaar, ha ha ha ha

Let’s go on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday…

Oh, shenanigah dah…”

 

The informant is a 95-year old woman, who was raised in the Netherlands and then moved to California with her husband and daughter after surviving the Holocaust. She was raised in a upper middle class Jewish family, attended school through her adolescence, but never attended any school past that. She survived the Holocaust hiding in the attic of a gentile woman. The “Shenanigah Dah” song is one she told me she learned from her aunt and one she always sang with me when I would come visit her. The informant sings this song in a playful manner, typically at times of leisure (for instance: during “coffee” a sort-of Dutch ritual everyday around 11 am where family gets together, drinks coffee, eats cookies, and chats.

 

Thoughts:

The nature of this song—a very cheery, up tempo melody, repetitive nature, and simple lyrics—along with the setting in which it is sung, it seems that this song is a reflection of the cyclical nature of time; it gestures to the passing of the days in a cyclical fashion and in its lyrics and melodies, is an invitation of sorts to the listener to join the singer in leisure time.

 

In searching for more information on this song, I found several references to Dutch Grandmother songs; I love the idea that there is a whole genre of songs designated to grandmas (Omas, in Dutch) for singing with grandchildren. While I discovered this sub genre of folk music, I couldn’t find anything online about the song I grew up singing with my Oma. However, what I find really curious about my Oma singing this song is that it is in English, and doesn’t seem very much like a song that is Dutch in origin. When I asked my mom, she could remember my Oma singing it to her as well, but couldn’t think of a Dutch translation or trace wher my Oma might have gotten it.

This seems like a sort of folklore crossover: my Oma practiced the Dutch custom of singing grandmother songs with one of her main songs being an English one.