“What do a light bulb joke, your great aunt’s cold remedy, and a poem scribbled on the door of a bathroom stall have in common? If you know the answer, you may have taken a class from the late UC Berkeley professor Alan Dundes. Each of these, Dundes would have said, is an example of folklore—a category of knowledge that many people associate with the legends, old-wives tales and superstitions passed along by preliterate societies in the times of yore.
But Dundes taught that folklore, rather than being an erudite study of ancient ways, was alive, it was relevant, and it was everywhere. It was the jokes people told, the stories they shared, even the graffiti they wrote on walls. Every person, Dundes believed, was a walking treasure trove of folk wisdom.”
Though I was not a student at Berkeley, professor Dundes generously allowed me to sit in on his introductory folklore class. That led to further investigations in the crowded room that at the time served as the repository of his folklore archives.
On the occasion of the opening of these archives to the public, and because my wife Liz is at this very moment en-route from the market with a chicken that shall soon be transformed into liquid Puerto Rican, Jewish penicillin as a remedy for the cold that is keeping me from work today, and because it is the eve of Chanukah, and the candles have just arrived via the deity Amazonia… I offer this memory.
Many years ago I had an opportunity to hear, for the first time, the brilliant and often hilarious Northwest Native American healer and storyteller Johnny Moses Though I certainly remember his folkloric stories of Octopus Lady, and Boogie Woman it was a family story that sticks with me more than the rest. After all these year, I may not have the details exactly right, but here is the gist of it.
Apparently a Catholic priest tried mightily and over a long period of time to convert Johnny’s grandfather- a Native American traditionalist and healer. As Johnny told it, the priest finally wore Grandfather down. After a due course of study, the day came when the cleric sprinkled holy water on the old man and said, “you were a Heathen, now you are a Catholic.” Sometime later, the priest was out and about in the village on a Friday and got a whiff of roasting meat. To his chagrin he found Grandfather roasting venison and was quick to make known his disappointment and disapproval. Grandfather took the tirade in stride. He removed the meat from the fire, walked to the river, sprinkled a few drops of water on it uttered these words… “ You were a Deer, now you are a Salmon!”
No sooner had I heard this tale then I said to myself, “Dad must have been right… the Native Americans ARE one of the lost tribes of Israel! I’d heard that story before. In fact I’d heard it quite a few times before. It was one of Dad’s oft repeated tales when I was growing up in the 50s. Well, it was mostly the same story.
As Dad told it, it was a priest in a suburban neighborhood… friends with his neighbor the rabbi, and again the priest worked mightily to convert the rabbi. The rabbi too finally agreed, went through with his studies, and he too was sprinkled with holy water. “You were a Jew, now you are a Catholic.” The priest was out for a stroll on, yes…Friday. This time he smelled barbecue chicken. Again there were remonstrations of great disappointment, and again these were met with equanimity. No doubt you see where this is going…. the Rabbi reached for a glass of water, dipped his fingers in and sprinkled a few drops on the grill. “ You were a chicken, now you are a salmon!”
It was only years later that I realized that some of Dad’s jokes were actually teaching stories… this one of course was about identity. At that time, the Holocaust was a very recent memory and Dad set the hook of the lesson by reminding me that it didn’t matter what you said you were, if you had Jewish ancestry you were on your way to the camps. It was a lesson about the dangers of assimilation.
After hearing Johnny tell his tale, I made my way to Dundes’ folklore archives and discovered close to one hundred versions of the story. I still recall Johnny’s thunderous laughter after telling the tale. As the soup cooks, I remember my father, who shared love through food and stories.
We put up a Christmas tree last night. Tonight, we’ll light the Chanukah candles. But sadly, there is more gruesome news today of barbarism and slaughter of the innocents under the guise of religious orthodoxy.
It’s time for some more holy water. You don’t need to give up your venison, your chicken, your hummus or tofu… sprinkle yourself and simply say… I was a drop… now I am the ocean. Now I am a human being.”
May the stories continue. May we find and deeply know our common humanity May peace prevail on earth.