American Rom, 1995
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The most prevalent, visible Rom (literally "man" or "husband") in the United States and California specifically are the Mačvaja, from the Mačva area of Serbia, and the Kalderash, from Romania and Russia. They refer to themselves as Rom and their language as Romanes. Though the two cultures are similar in many ways, and there is some intermarriage between these two groups. They generally maintain their separate tribes.
The Christian Eastern Orthodox religion is the only religion that was around these Rom (those that eventually immigrated to California) in Europe. They picked up that religion. They always pick out the religion of their host country, to the extent that in this country, they're now becoming Christians, meaning Pentecostals, an example of which are the Disciples of Christ. This is a hallelujah type of religion and they want to convert others. It's the Kalderash tribe that's converting, as opposed to the wealthier, more affluent Mačvaja tribe.
The Mačvaja tribe shuns this religion, adhering instead to a modified Serbian Orthodox religion. It would take someone with more knowledge of theology to explain how their religion is manifested. It's just the opposite of, say, the Latinos, who go to church every Sunday and pray at every opportunity. The Rom have beliefs, customs, and traditions from their religion that they follow very closely, but they don't pray, they don't go to church, and they don't receive any sacraments. The Rom is only in church twice in his life; once when he or she is baptized and once when he or she is brought in a casket. When I say church, I mean the Orthodox Church in the case of Los Angeles, it's St. Sophia's Greek Orthodox Church where they take the body for burial services. Then the same priest will accompany them to the cemetery and continue the service over the casket before it's lowered.
Along with their religion, such as it is, the Rom are very superstitious. Their livelihood is based on palm reading in many of the clans, which itself is a superstition. I've found out about this the hard way in the past, even losing sales because of it. I could inadvertently say something that translates into bad luck and that would kill a sale. For example, there are a few singers that they believe bring bad luck, and if I mention their name while trying to sell them records or tapes, I lose the sale. How do they become bad luck? Well, if someone buys their tape and that buyer then has bad luck of some sort, the cause of the bad luck could be blamed on the singer's music and traced to the purchase of that tape.
They do believe in good and bad luck. The nicest thing you can wish a Rom is "bah" (pronounced "bach"), which means "good luck." Wishing someone good luck is the highest compliment you can pay them. It's important to know that they are superstitious in the way of luck.
BIRTH AND BAPTISM
There's usually a party for the baptism after birth. The baptism takes place in the church. They get a friend to be the godparent, or even an outsider, to bring the child to the church for the baptism. Curiously, otherwise following the Serbian Orthodox religion, they will baptize in a Catholic church and they bury in a Catholic Cemetery Calvary, and they have their section in the cemetery. For some reason, the Rom do not go to any of the three Serbian Orthodox churches in the Los Angeles area.
The godparents are the main participants and the most important people in the baptism. In the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, the godparents assume a very important role. They are chosen very carefully, because if something happens to the parents, the godparents raise the child. They are the foster parents until the child grows up. That's the purpose of godparents. This is truer historically than it is now. We no longer have the worry that the child will have nowhere to go if the parents die, but in the old days, one had to provide for the child. Because today's Rom society is a very close-knit, family based society (including the extended family), every individual is ensured of care and protection.
The godparents are also responsible for the child being brought up as a Christian, and technically, if the parents neglect that, it's the godparents who can step in and whip the family into line (theoretically). Essentially, what happens is that the godparents take the child to church and have it baptized as their first duty towards that child. Then they go back to the house and have a big party, and that's it that's the baptism. They usually have a candle to symbolize the light of Christianity being brought to the child, and they take the candle home from the church as a souvenir.
Then there's no church-based religion again in the child's life until death, when the body is taken there for a formal orthodox funeral service. Because the funeral service is given in Greek or another foreign tongue, the Rom don't understand the language of the ritual, they're just following tradition, and accept the service as part of their religion. And that's basically their religion, the following of certain customs and traditions is so closely intertwined with religion as to be inseparable from it. For example, the Catholics didn't used to eat meat on Friday because that was the day that Christ was crucified. The ban on eating meat on Fridays was one of the five church laws added to God's ten commandments. When the Rom went home on Friday evenings, they ate fish for dinner, and this would satisfy their need for tradition and religion. In the same way, they have a slava (a Serbian Orthodox Christian tradition of the ritual glorification of one's family's patron saint) every year.
WEDDINGS AND MARRIAGE
The Rom, in their culture, can not see a man and a woman in a platonic relationship. A woman has her place as a wife and a man is a husband. They could understand a girlfriend, but not just a friend of the opposite sex.
Marriages are arranged by the parents, even to this day. The bride is actually bought. The current price in 1995 is approaching $10,000. And the groom, who is often only a fifteen or sixteen year old boy, seldom has any say in the matter. The bride is often one to several years older than the boy. Centuries ago, love was not prerequisite for marriage as it is today. In a sense, they've followed that old tradition of arranged marriages. After all, the parents know a lot more about life and who is more suitable for their teenager than the teenager him or her self.
Marriages are often arranged with a political or economic end in mind. The parents of the boy usually initiate the search for a marriage partner. In accepting or rejecting an offer from a potential groom's family, the girl's family looks for a boy from a good family, someone of equal status, and preferably from a wealthy family. The boy's family looks for a girl who will probably do well in palm reading, if that's a big source of income for that tribe. Some women are good and some are very, very good at this. Some have even created fortunes at this. I know of one marriage that actually broke up because the girl turned out to be a poor-quality palm reader, and couldn't support the family.
I saw my first Rom wedding way back in 1949 when I had a performing Kolo (circle) group in the San Francisco Bay area, the Yugoslav Kolo Group. We performed at the State fair in 1949 in Sacramento, and some Rom that came to the fair told me about a wedding that was to take place the next day in a suburb way south of town called Elk Grove. So, my whole group went to this Rom wedding that took place in the Grange Hall in this little town.
Some things really stand out in my mind about the event. All the women wore the traditional Rom dress (or costume), which they no longer wear. And the tables were laden with food, and they danced the Kolo just like we do. Not the same steps, but in the same formation we use. And the music was recorded and it was mostly Jewish freilach music, which was their music at the time. Up to the last decade, Jewish music for dancing was the best, certainly lively, and they want fast, lively music when they dance. So, we danced with them. But most of their dance steps then were just shuffling and grapevining in the Kolo, holding hands at shoulder height, and shuffling along in line of direction (counterclockwise), and going into the center and coming back out. That was about the extent of the choreography.
And the bride was crying. When one of the girls in our group asked her why she was crying, she said it was because her husband was running around and playing with the boys outside, as boys do. He wasn't more than fourteen or fifteen years old. She was somewhat older, which is common. As soon as girls are past puberty (same with the boy), she's eligible for marriage, and its not many years later that they do wed. And so, she was crying.
Regarding the nature of the ceremony itself, I asked how they got married. Are they already married? No. Later on in the afternoon, a couple of the elders took the couple into a corner and performed some sort of vocal ceremony that lasted perhaps three or four minutes. After they came out of the corner, they were husband and wife, recognized as such by the Rom community. They do not, to this day, get a marriage license. It's not recorded, and if things go wrong, they have their own divorce procedure recognized in the tribe. They avoid City Hall as much as possible, especially the judicial system. Unfortunately, they find themselves in the judicial system more often than they'd like. So, they got married by an elder in the corner, and I don't really know what the ritual was in that corner. I do know that they did not cut their wrists and put them together and tie them together with a handkerchief.
In later years, I have gone to weddings in this same tribe, and I never again saw them go into the corner and perform this ceremony. It's a very nice way that they get married, that the ceremony is officiated. First, they rent the biggest and best hall they can get. In Los Angeles, the Mačvaja rent the Proud Bird or another major hotel such as a Marriott or a Hilton. They generally hold weddings near the airport area. People start arriving around noon and the tables will be decorated with flowers and the wedding cake. They get pretty elaborate with the decorations. One especially fancy one was called the "Cinderella Wedding," and it had this theme because the girl married into the "royal" family of Adams. They had half a dozen tables in a line with Cinderella's coach and horses, and the pumpkins and the fairy godmother, and all of that. It was fantastic. Thousands of dollars just in decorations.
The bride arrives in a very fancy dress, not in bridal white. She wears a dress that was a gift from the groom's family to her. She'll wear that dress for an hour or two and then disappear, only to return in another dress, even more flowery and beautiful than the last. This second dress, really a gown, was also bought for her by the groom's family to welcome her into the family. She'll stay in that dress and dance and be very prominent for an hour or two and then she'll disappear again. Then she comes out in a really spectacular gown with maybe a tiara, and everyone will admire her and her beautiful dress. Then, after dark and everyone has eaten, she'll disappear again, and come back out in a white wedding gown, as beautiful and expensive as they can find.
Meanwhile, everyone dances all afternoon. At weddings, everyone dances the Kolo, and the leader of the dance is generally a man who carries the wedding flag. If you've seen any weddings in the Balkans, you would have seen the leader of the Kolo carrying a flag. Or, if there's a wedding procession, there will be the flag. It is decorated with flowers and ribbons and is always there as a symbol. The Rom brought that symbol into their culture. It's a pole with a red flag and lots of artificial flowers and ribbons with a green sprig on top. The leader carries this in his right hand and the Kolo is danced all afternoon, with different men taking turns leading.
They've had their dinner, and may or may not have had the money collection yet. The Rom don't give gifts, they collect money. The heads of all the families (men only) sit at the head table of the wedding, while their wives and kids sit at other tables. The groom's father plus a couple of the elders come with a loaf of bread (as big as they can find) that's been slit on top and all the insides taken out. They go from one family head to the next with the loaf. Everything's quiet, and the head of the family brings out cash, usually with a very flashy flourish. He doesn't mind if everyone else sees how generous he is, and whoever is doing the collection announces how much the family head gave. The tamburitza orchestra follows the bread-bearers and does a fanfare after each gift. The elders and groom's father will exaggerate the amount given. For example, once, at the wedding of a valued friend's son, I gave $50, and they announced that I had given $5,000. Most of the money collected goes to pay for the affair, rather than to the bride and groom.
The dinner and collecting go first and the marriage ceremony is the last ritual of the affair. Everyone gets into a big Kolo in a certain order. The father will be at the end with the flag, and the bride is there. The groom is next to the father. Next to the bride is the groom's mother-in-law, who is perhaps the most important in the whole ceremony kind of the master of ceremonies. The bride wears the wedding dress but not a crown or veil. The bride does not see these until the last moment, and that is carried by the mother-in-law. So, you have a Kolo lasting a half an hour with the father leading with the flag, and the son, and then the bride, and then the mother-in-law, and then the other close relatives, and then, at the end, the friends. And you have the music playing and playing, forever. At any given moment, seemingly on impulse, the mother-in-law stops dancing and takes the veil and crown and places the crown on the head of the bride. At that moment, she is married to her son. It's done in the dance. It's a very colorful ceremony.
Kolos are not the only dances done at weddings. There also are "couple dances," where different men and women dance together "free style" to the music, and there are solo women's dances, where different women or girls at the wedding go out on the floor to "perform." They're surrounded by others who clap in time to the music, egging her on and encouraging her to really show her abilities.
As you can see, music and dance are very important in the Rom community, and the status of the musician (one who is "musical") reflects this. Practically every family has an orchestra or orchestra connections. It's the young men, only the young men, that play. Today, they play guitars. When they record or play for weddings or other occasions, they also have a drum. The guitar is basically a Spanish guitar, and everybody sings and dances. They're losing this to some degree, especially the dancing. At one time, everyone was expected to dance. I don't know why this is changing. I suppose they're becoming Americanized. Anyhow, they do play and sing. That's why my business does so well with them, because music and singing is very important in their daily life. I remember one woman whose husband went a little crazy, and they had to put him in an asylum. Everyone knew he was a bit off, but one day she came into the shop, crying, and wanted to buy some music. She said, "They took my husband away today. I want to sing and I want to cry and I want to dance." So, she wanted some sad Serbian songs and she wanted some lively Jewish freilach music to dance to. So they use music to express grief, and they also use it to express joy.
According to Marlene Sway in her book, "Gypsy Life in America: Familiar Strangers," published in 1988, it is the custom in the United States for a Romani bride to live with her husband's family after the wedding and until she becomes a mother herself. During the first few years of marriage, the bori (new bride) is subservient to her mother-in-law and other members of her husband's family. This also serves as a "training period," during which the new wife is instructed in the fortune-telling techniques her mother-in-law prefers. Once trained, the bride often goes out as a palm reader.
Meantime, the husband spends his time hanging out with the boys, going out to the race track, mostly, playing cards a little, sitting around a table singing and drinking, or perhaps sitting around with a couple of cars parked that they own and manage. I know a few that were in real estate that sold mobile homes up in Santa Rosa. Many have jobs but not do conventional work. I do not know of any Rom who would be "gainfully employed." It's the wife that's responsible and eventually the children will often "manage" and we're talking about the MaEvaja tribe here. Back to the participation in the Christian church: the church edicts would not be supported to tell fortunes, they are not supposed to be outside for sale. Many have apartment houses that are in real estate and several sold cars. I know one family that have apartments that they own and manage. But they do not become doctors or lawyers. None would ever punch a clock to be eligible for bringing in the money, though the husband may be at the wife's fortune telling establishment. I'm talking about the object of religion; they don't get involved with the church that would interfere with how they make their living. The church would destroy their livelihood.
Rom family life is basically matriarchal. There is no such thing as woman's lib or woman's equality. There is none, nothing. On the other hand, and this has been true for generations, the Rom woman's power within the family is much greater than that of the average American wife. In most cases, she controls the purse strings, she runs the house, she raises the children, all with an eye to the overriding importance of the family in her life. So, they don't have women's lib, and they don't need it. They have their bank right in their bosom and can pull out hundred dollar bills. When they come to my shop to buy some tapes, it's always the woman who makes the decisions. She's the one that's standing up in front of the counter saying, "I want to hear this, I want to hear that, I want to take this." And he's the one that's somewhere near the door, on the periphery.
The whole purpose of the slava is to honor the family saint, in the hope that he or she would bring good luck to the family during the coming year. They do the saint an honor by preparing a huge table of food and lighting a candle to that saint. The feast is lavish; by the time everything is in place, there isn't space for even a toothpick! A variety of fruits, cakes, desserts, and soft drinks precede the hot foods, which include whole suckling pigs, lamb, turkeys or fish, along with spicy side dishes. Each saint's day slava features a different meat unique to that saint (for example, fish on St. Nicholas' slava on December 19th). There are usually stalks of celery present that are dipped into dishes of ketchup to "cut the grease," as most Rom foods are spicy and heavy on fat.
The table is blessed with burning incense and all are called to partake. Late comers are served as they arrive. Guests usually contribute a "bottle" that is placed on the table. The table remains set for the entire day. Several large candles grace the table, depending on how many sons or slavjari (sponsors) of the slava there are. The eldest has the largest candle. Additionally, there will be a picture or icon of the saint placed alongside the candle.
The slava, of course, comes from the Serbian tradition, but it has a different purpose. In Serbia, the tradition has overtones of nationalistic pride and has little or nothing to do with luck. The saint, rather, is honored from a nationalistic and family unity standpoint. The Rom, on the other hand, are hedging their bets, providing themselves with "luck insurance." Along those lines, I joked with a male Rom. Once in a while, one will buy a tape and say he'll make a copy for his friend. I say, "Don't do that; that will bring the worst kind of bad luck." I tell them the story of a man who did that and gave his friends copies of a tape he bought from me, and the next day, his wife ran off with a Kalderash (the poorer Rom tribe)!
Each community has its own panel of arbitrators to settle moral and/or "legal" matters, which they do during a kris, a very public "trial," attended by all Rom (according to Marlene Sway) within a 500 mile radius. The accused and the accuser both represent themselves during the proceedings, there being no lawyers involved. Once the kris hands down a verdict, the entire Rom community enforces the verdict via social control and ostracism.
Typically, a grandfather has control over everyone in his extended family. Groups of extended families living in the same geographic area band together to form kumpanias, the social, economic, and political units that maintain and enforce the rules of Romani life. The grandfather of the extended family is responsible for the various women having fortune telling places. The same family that would have fortune telling places all over town. It depends on the number of women they have. The elder tells the women what to do, when to do it, and they all obey very faithfully, because it's their security blanket, in a way. He would decide who marries whom, and where they would be. He'd make all the decisions for that extended family, that could number 35 or 40 people.
If there is a disagreement between people from different clans at any one time or place, there is no overriding body of elders or judges to mediate between the different clans not one that would do it immediately, on the spot. For one thing, everyone in that clan wojld act as one unit. They wouldn't side with anyone else, right or wrong. They stick together. Then, back to this leader, the head of the family would have as his peers the the heads of other families. So, the heads of the families collectively would create a sort of leadership, and they are the ones always together at a function, discussing community problems. They, or some of them, form this "judge and jury" kris when a problem arises.
The Rom barro (chief), when there is one, serves as the community arbitrator. The barro is "elected" by popular acclaim. People have to respect him and credit him with good qualities fairness, good intentions, generosity, and, above all, a dedication to the welfare of the tribe. There's only one recognized "king" who was very well liked and everyone recognized him as a king. He died in 1964 that's George Adams. Since he died, as of 1995, there's been no one to take his place. But there are a number of elders, men, that are called upon to form a kris, a kind of court. For example, if I run off with your wife, that's an offense in the Rom community. So, your father will sue my father and bring the suit to this court. Then my father will have to pay your father so many thousands of dollars. That's a typical case. I've known sons who have cost their fathers thousands and thousands of dollars for such behavior.
Though there have been some very strong leaders in the Rom community, most have them have died. The Rom tend to die relatively young, maybe because of their poor living habits their eating habits are terrible, with lots of fat, they get no exercise, they smoke. Many of them are obese. Most men die of heart attacks, some quite young. Woman seem to die of cancer more than anything else. The other thing is, there is a lot of inbreeding. They will marry second cousins. They kind of keep the wealth in the family through marriage by doing this.
Music and feasting are the two main elements the Rom use for emotional expression. Feasting is an extremely important part of their culture. Every event, happy or sad, must have feasting with it. When you go to the funeral for someone, they feed you right there. Eating and drinking are part of the ceremony, part of the ritual. They only use mortuaries where they're allowed to set up a tent or hire a tent and for them to put up a barbecue and barbecue steaks. The same at the cemetery. When someone is buried, there's a feast and tables right there at the gravesite. The activity takes the whole day. They bring the body to church for a twenty-minute ritual and then they go to the cemetery.
The casket remains above ground and people come. Many more come that didn't go to the church, especially men. They all sit around the graves in the cemetery and will go and visit their other relatives. They'll talk and drink and socialize the same way they would do at any occasion, and they'll have tables around laden with food, and a tent over all this. In the meantime, the casket sits on top of a platform waiting to be lowered. The Rom stay because lowering the casket into the grave is part of the ritual. They throw money in the empty grave, and bless the grave with some Seagram's 7, or some good wine. Meanwhile, the casket is laden with provisions, like cigarettes if the person smoked, candy bars galore, perhaps an extra blanket all of this to provision the body on the "journey." I compare this to the Egyptians who journeyed on the river Styx in a canoe. The Rom do the same. Whoever comes to visit puts a few spending money bills into the casket, wishing the person a nice journey. So, the whole family and all the friends are there and have been socializing since morning. Then the tractor comes with a hook that lifts the casket into a concrete box, lifts the lid, and puts it on the box. Next, the tractor lifts the whole thing up and puts it into the ground while the people toss flowers into the grave. And then they all take pieces of sod or dirt to throw in and the bulldozer comes and scoops the rest of the dirt into the grave. After this, the people go back to their eating, drinking, and socializing. The Rom do not ever cremate.
When a Rom first dies, I imagine they abide by whatever the law is regarding the coroner, autopsies, etc. However, I never followed that. But the curious thing about death, they have a different outlook or meaning about death than other people. They visit the grave very often, and there are certain days of the year that they have to go during Christmas, Easter, and on the deceased's birthday. When they go there to see the grave, they see something we don't see. They have a different attitude. The way they talk, you can tell. They say, "That's my mother." They wouldn't say, "That was my mother" or "That's my mother's body buried there." No, they say, "That's my mother" or "That's my father." They know the person isn't alive. They have a different outlook. Possibly, because of that attitude, it's very rare to see any mourning at the time of death they're very busy with the rituals of the death. And that has the whole family running all over town getting supplies. The family often comes to my shop to get candles and incense, and they'll take time to listen to the tapes and buy some. Here they are, with a loved one having just died hours ago, and here they are in a record shop listening to tapes and buying music. When they come, it's not your average type of mourning that other people exhibit. The whole ritual always takes three days. They have the first day in the morning and have the first pomana (remebrance feast) on the evening of the third day. They bury on the fourth day in the morning. There is no visible sign of mourning. Perhaps death is viewed as just another stage of life more as a continuation than an end.
They will know a person's going to die, is very terminally ill, and expected to die in the next hour or the next day. Yet, they don't show emotion. I encountered something like that when I was up north visiting my mother in a rest home. As my sister and I were going into the rest home, we saw a woman at the phone making a call, and just by the way she stood at the phone, I told my sister that she was a Romani woman. She didn't have anything else to distinguish her her clothes and her hair were the same as anyone else, but she had that stance that is so typical of the Rom. Later, I went out to the parking lot alone and this woman and her friend were standing out there together smoking (they're notorious smokers &150; they'll be the last ones in the world to give up cigarettes, and then only when there are no more cigarettes to be bought), and I sat down next to them and said, "Sar my san" (hello, how are you). They were of course, startled by this gajo sitting there speaking Romanes. They were women in their late 40s. I started introducing myself to them and told them that I sell Rom tapes and music. One of them poked the other and said, "Oh, the store on Pico." So, they knew. So I said, "Yes," and she said she'd ordered tapes from me and wanted some more. Before the conversation was over, I had orders to ship over $100 worth of music to them. And I asked them, "Who was here that you are visiting?" It was the sister of one. She had a brain tumor and was in a coma. They said she was expected to go into a deeper coma that night and never come out of it, and it would be a matter of days before she died. But there was no sadness in these women. Here they were asking about tapes and music to buy, and here was their sister, dying. There was no mourning. It was just a factual thing. Like she's going on a trip and they were helping her get ready.
According to Marlene Sway, it is mandatory for every Rom who knew the deceased to attend both the funeral and the pomana. Each visitor goes through the "ritual of forgiveness" in which he or she begs the deceased for forgiveness for any wrongdoing he or she may have committed. The funeral itself is arranged to usher the deceased to the "other side" in comfort and style, and the Rom load the coffin with various items to ensure this. Money is thrown into the coffin by most of the visitors, and bottles of liquor, food, and tobacco are placed alongside the body in the coffin.
There are commonly three pomanas after death: one at the mortuary, one six weeks after death, and a third one year after death. However, the West Coast Kalderash American Rom (Sway, 1988) hold a pomana on the third, sixth, and ninth days after death, then at one month, six months, and finally at one year after the death. The pomana comes from the Orthodox religion. All the orthodox religions have this. The Greeks call it parasthos, the Serbians call it parastos which comes from the Serbian word spomene (remembrance).
The body is at the funeral home, and so is the first pomana. The body's right there in the chapel, and right outside in the parking lot they have the first pomana. They'll have a tent out there and arrange the tables in the form of a cross, and everybody will be outside sitting around the tables eating and drinking. At the first pomana, only grains, beans, rice, and fruits are served, in keeping with the Rom practice of vegetarianism during periods of grief.
A long time ago, I noticed the absence of hysteria. Only once or twice have I seen that, and in both cases it was a woman. And I know one man who took his wife's death very hard. Usually, they're just sober, talking. You don't see any evidence of mourning. No tears, no being terribly upset. And I think it's because of their attitude towards death, which is hard to describe.
At the pomana, two tables are put together in the shape of a cross. At the intersection of the two tables, a single candle and/or a tray of incense is lit, both to chase away the spirit of the dead person and to honor him or her. After the pomana, it is the custom for the guests to take the uneaten food home with them. Members of the immediate family do not take any food home because they believe the spirit of the deceased will follow the food and could create problems for the family.
The last pomana is the largest. The biggest, fanciest one I ever went to had sixty-five tables totally laden with food, fruit, candy and flowers, all arranged in the sign of a cross. It cost thousand upon thousands of dollars to put on a pomana, and it's an obligation, a duty, to do so. If all of the rituals of mourning are not observed, the Rom believe that after one year, the ghost of the departed will be satisfied and not cause any mischief for the living.
In closing, here is the common Rom farewell greeting: "Bah tie sostimos" (good luck and happiness). And lots of lovay ($$$$$).
Used with permission of the author.
Printed in Folk Dance Scene, May/June and July/August 1995.