celebrations, music, religion, Uncategorized

“When You Get to the Word ‘Jesus,’ Just Sing ‘Hm, Hm”

Those were the instructions my mother gave me after I told her that I had been chosen to be a sixth grade Christmas caroler. She felt that I would be betraying my Jewish heritage if I sang the name of “Jesus.” I didn’t agree with her, so I didn’t obey.

Anonymous group of Christmas carolers. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Anonymous group of Christmas carolers. Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

For me, music trumps all, and I’m not talking about Donald. Other Jews don’t have a problem paying tribute to the birth of Jesus. Look at Irving Berlin. He composed the iconic two tunes associated with Christian holidays: “White Christmas” and “Easter Parade.” High-profile Jewish vocalists have joyfully sung Christian holiday songs, such as Barbra Streisand with one album of Christmas melodies and Neil Diamond with three different Christmas albums.

In 1994, the First World Sacred Music Festival occurred in Los Angeles and was a spectacular event. Because Los Angeles has so many different religions, the event lasted for two weeks in many sacred as well as public venues. However, the most exciting program occurred at the Hollywood Bowl. First of all, the Dalai Lama blessed this gathering of almost 18,000 audience members. To protect him, all of us had to pass through metal detectors before being seated.

After his blessing, the performances ensued. Because there were so many musical acts, the concert began at 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon and ended at 10:00 p.m. As each group sang, the excitement heightened until we reached the last act, a renowned choir from the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles.

The pianist slowly played some chords and then intoned: “You may have AT & T, but sometimes your call doesn’t go through.” She played some arpeggios and continued. “You may have Sprint, but they, too, have problems and sometimes you can’t get through.” After playing more chords and arpeggios, she dramatically mentioned more phone carriers, all with connection flaws, leading to the climax: “But there is one person who will always be there to answer your call, and his name is…” In the spirit of the moment the entire audience shouted, “JESUS!” Then the choir began and we rocked on throughout their set until we left the Bowl on a high note.

By singing the name “Jesus,” did that negate my religious or spiritual beliefs? Did it change who I am? I don’t believe so. For me, the music transcended the words.

Is it bad/evil/or disloyal to sing the name of another one’s God?

I have never felt so, but I speak only for myself.

Oops! I have much more to write about, but it’s time to leave for my Las Cruces Ukuleles rehearsal for our four upcoming Christmas concerts. And when we get to the word “Jesus” I will have no problem belting out his name.

The author in her Las Cruces Ukes performance costume. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
The author in her Las Cruces Ukes performance costume. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.


Norine Dresser is a folklorist who delights in music of all kinds, religious and secular, Western and Eastern.




folklore, music, Uncategorized

“I Can’t Stand the Competition!”

Few people might consider that watching one segment of an early morning television show could become a life-changing event.

But that’s what happened to me in 1954 when feeding my newborn daughter, Andrea, while watching the “Today Show” hosted by Dave Garroway.  He interviewed Jean Ritchie, a New York Settlement House worker who was originally from Appalachia and played a new-to-me-instrument called a mountain dulcimer that she strummed with a feathered quill.

Jean Ritchie holding her mountain dulcimer.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Jean Ritchie holding her mountain dulcimer. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

The haunting tunes she sang in a thin clear soprano voice struck me powerfully. Never before had I heard anything like this. Later, I discovered that it was the modal scales on which her tunes were based that created the plaintive quality that bowled me over. Immediately, I purchased one of her LP recordings, learned to sing these new tunes and started collecting albums of other folk music stars of the day: Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, Rambling Jack Elliott, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and dozens more.

Norine Dresser playing her own Mountain Dulcimer. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.
Norine Dresser playing her own mountain dulcimer. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2015.

Ultimately, Jean Ritchie became the Yellow Brick Road leading to my becoming a folklorist. First, I learned a large part of the American folk music repertoire. Next, I started playing folk guitar and later taught it; Then I attended UCLA where I earned a B.A. in anthropology and an M.A. in folklore and mythology. Afterward, I utilized my new-found knowledge to teach folklore and pop culture at California State University Los Angeles, where I stayed for 20 years.

* * *

Flash forward 10 years from that 1954 “Today Show” segment. I found out that Jean Ritchie was scheduled to perform at the Ash Grove, the premiere Los Angeles folk music venue of that time. On a lark, I sent her a very homespun letter saying that members of my guitar club were fans and if, while in L.A., she would come over, we would be honored to meet her and “break bread” together. I mailed the letter and forgot about it – until the day she phoned. In her twangy voice she agreed to come over but with the proviso that I transport her to her evening gig at the Ash Grove. “Of course,” I excitedly agreed.

Jean was a delightful guest describing the role of music while growing up in her home. For example, she and her siblings sang specific songs while performing particular chores. After lunch she performed an enchanting dulcimer concert. This was a magical moment: from first watching her on TV in my living to now seeing her perform live in my living room. She mesmerized my guests and me.

After all the visitors had left, Jean rested in my bedroom while I prepared supper. During the meal, my toddler, Amy, who was in a high chair, took her spoon and kept banging it against her water glass while Jean was trying to talk. Exasperated, Jean loudly announced, “I can’t stand the competition!”

That shut us all up. We were so used to the dinner table din that we didn’t hear the noise. It took Jean to point out this disruption. And ever since Jean’s pronouncement, “I can’t stand the competition,” this commentary has become one of our family’s favorite sayings.

All these memories of Jean Ritchie and her influence in my becoming a folklorist washed over me a few weeks ago with news of her death at age 92. My last conversation with her took place in the car while we drove to the Ash Grove that night more than 50 years ago, and I felt remorseful. I never told her how her “Today Show” appearance had changed my life.

But it’s never too late. “Thank you, Jean Ritchie!


Norine Dresser is a “I Can’t Stand the Competition!”who shall forever be grateful to Jean Ritchie who led her down the wondrous path to becoming a folklorist.

customs/rituals, folklore, food, good luck/bad luck, Uncategorized

“Next Time, Order the Shrimp!” Fortune Cookie Wisdom

Bowl of opened fortune cookies.  Photo by Mariah Chase.  © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Bowl of opened fortune cookies. Photo by Mariah Chase. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.

Even though most of us are aware that fortune cookies are a faux Chinese custom invented in the U.S., we wait in suspense to open these rice cake treats when dining in Chinese restaurants.

Especially for children.  For a while, my husband and I fooled our offspring until they learned to read.  The toddlers would excitedly hand Harold their cookie fortunes and invariably he would pretend to slowly decode them and then intone, “Honor your father and your mother, and you will have good luck.”  We couldn’t get away with that for long.

In Los Angeles, I frequently visited Chinatown and once stopped in at a Chinese Fortune Cookie factory.  The process intrigued me  — batter automatically poured onto small circle griddles and when the fragrant aroma indicated that they were cooked, they were mechanically folded into fortune cookie shapes.  The process mesmerized me, yet I can’t remember at what stage they inserted the fortunes.

Most of us are familiar with the old fashioned predictions, “You will soon take a long journey,” but fortunes like the irreverent one in my title, “Next time, order the shrimp,” cause a vision of Chinese fortune cookie writers going off the deep end.  Or perhaps, the new kinds of fortune cookie writers are simply more daring and realistic.

“There is no problem.  It’s only your stupidity.”

“Keep it simple.  The more you say, the more people won’t remember.”

Even though wer realize that the fortunes are just hokum created by some anonymous writers, more likely based in Brooklyn than Beijing, we have hopes that a startling pronouncement will elate us and renew our optimism about the future.

There’s nothing wrong with that.  That’s why we scan our horoscopes, have our palms read or tarot cards interpreted.

Even on the brink of 83 years, I confess that I still look forward to reading my fortune and grab the cookie that conveys that it is destined only for me.  So far, I have avoided selecting this one of the contemporary variety.

“I cannot help you, for I am just a cookie.”

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who believes that at almost 83, tomorrow still holds promise.

customs/rituals, folklore, health, Uncategorized

Feed a Cold? Starve a Fever? Something else?


When you are sick, do you Google your symptoms for a diagnosis? Do you go to the pharmacy and scan over-the-counter remedies? Do you call a trusted friend or relative for advice? Do you book an appointment with your internist? Or do you go to Urgent Care? To the ER? That is more or less the gamut of options in our contemporary urban culture. But not everyone follows this route.

I attended a conference on Alternative Healing methods at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and was struck by the variety of healing methods utilized by Hispanic people living in rural areas. Since they have limited access to modern healing centers, they rely on multiple traditional modes of treatment.

Healer giving limpia (cleansing) to patient.  ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014
Healer giving limpia (cleansing) to patient. ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014


One might go to a curandero/curandera, someone who heals in a time-tested way. They might give you a limpia or cleansing, a common treatment where the healer moves branches or flowers or herbs downward on the body to physically and metaphorically sweep away the sickness. They may also use a raw egg in the same manner. Traditional healers frequently say prayers or light incense during this ritual.


Smudging is another popular traditional healing method. Native Americans burn sage, whereas, the Latino population burns copal, the common incense of the Catholic church. In the Mexican tradition, they burn the copal in sahumerios, open ceramic torch-like containers.  The healers pass the copal smoke all around the body to purify it of any maladies.


Sahumerio for burning copal incense shown in plastic bag.  ©Norine Dresser Photo Collection, 2014.
Sahumerio for burning copal incense shown in plastic bag. ©Norine Dresser Photo Collection, 2014.






Sometimes, patients visit a temazcal, a sweat lodge.   Akin to a Native American sweat lodge, it looks more like an oven made of bricks or cement blocks. Inside the pitch blackness, they burn specific herbs for particular problems: eucalyptus for respiratory needs (think Vicks); rose petals for anniversaries and weddings; basil for fertility issues or postpartum depression. Sitting inside the intense heat is similar to being in a sauna where toxins are released through the skin pores.   But unlike the sauna, the temazcal is a sacred experience where participants sing songs calling upon the ancestors for their help.

Prototype of a temazcal. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014.
Prototype of a temazcal. © Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014

Cupping is another method of removing sickness from the body. The patient lies down and the healer first removes oxygen from glass cups via a flame then quickly inverts the glass cups on specific locations on the patient’s back to create a suction. Most commonly used for respiratory problems, the goal is to bring the toxins to the surface of the skin where they can be released.

Curandera (healer) placing flame in cup to remove oxygen.  Cup placed on patient's back to create suction.  ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014
Curandera (healer) placing flame in cup to remove oxygen. Cup is placed on patient’s back to create suction. ©Norine Dresser photo collection, 2014


This reminds me of how my mother used to make dry mustard plasters and place them on my chest where they would heat up and make my skin turn red. She believed that the hot mustard would draw out and alleviate my bronchitis.




What I took away from this two week conference is that traditional healers spend more time listening to, putting their hands on, and honoring their patients. Through more ritualistic interactions, they involve the mind, body, and spirit of the patient. This is so unlike today’s urban relationships of patients and physicians where time restrictions, testing in locations removed from the healer, and prescription fixes seem to prevail and make it seem impersonal and less satisfying.  This probably explains why many Americans from Latin American and the Caribbean often turn to curanderos even while living in Los Angeles, New York, Miami or El Paso

Norine Dresser is a folklorist who has an appointment today for her flu shot.