My Daughter Darla’s Essay On Culture

23 Oct

Two years ago I featured my daughter Leni’s school essay  on the topic of how she considered her own culture. Her younger sister, Darla, who is now a sophomore, got assigned the same essay in her English class, and I am proud to share it here.


A Reflective Essay on Culture

“Wait, you’re Jewish?” he said.

With that question, I began to see the eyes of my classmates swiftly settle on me, observing, perhaps judging. Trying to answer the boy’s question for me, trying to determine if I was in fact a Jew. Did I look like one? Could they tell?

“Yeah,” I answered, nodding slightly and awkwardly smiling.

“Huh,” he remarked thoughtfully, “I thought you were Catholic or something. You look Catholic.”

That statement raised a question in my mind immediately, how does a person look Catholic? Thankfully, most of my classmates were thinking the same thing, and many laughed, telling him he was stupid for thinking that a person could look like they practiced a certain religion. This odd banter went on for a minute until my seventh grade math teacher re-gathered the attention of the class, quieting the chatter so that he could begin the day’s lesson. While everyone focused on the equations scrawled on the whiteboard, my focus was still very much internal as I replayed the earlier conversation in my mind. Wait, you’re Jewish? In my head it sounded almost accusatory, although the boy had asked it simply out of curiosity.

Yes, I was Jewish, had been my whole life. Born to a Jewish mother and a set of Jewish grandparents, I’ve inherited this religious identity by blood. I did not, however, inherit my mom’s Jewish last name, Grossman, which would have probably made identifying me as a Jew a whole lot easier for some people. But no, instead I received my father’s far less Jewish-sounding last name, Warlick.

In fact, it sounds so non-Jewish because it is not Jewish at all. My father comes from a southern, mostly Christian family who reside in the frying pan shaped state of Oklahoma. Although my dad was raised going to church, he never really felt at home in that religion, or in any religion. He never mentions religion to me, but I know he doesn’t quite practice any and he has always been a bit skeptical towards spirituality. Thus I have never felt this part of my background, apart from celebrating Christmas with my dad’s side of the family, either down in Oklahoma or here in Providence. But even then the presence of Christianity barely touches me, as my Oklahoma family seems to not be very religious so the holiday feels pretty secular. I know, as a Jew, that my purpose of celebrating Christmas is receiving presents. For this reason- and the fact that I get to spend time with family, of course- I love Christmas.

I know, I know, a Jew celebrating Christmas? How very non-Jewish of me. Allow me to explain. The Christmas-celebrating part of me is from my dad’s side, the Christian side. On my mom’s side I come from a  not very observant family of Ashkenazi Jewish people. My mom, my sister, and I basically do the bare minimum of typical Jewish family practices. We observe the high holidays like Passover and Chanukah by celebrating at home or at the home of a Jewish family friend. We eat apples and honey on the New Year to ensure our following months are sweet. We light a menorah and recite practically the only Hebrew blessing we know, the one said on Chanukah. We don’t keep kosher, we don’t regularly visit a synagogue, we don’t speak Hebrew, my sister and I have not had bat mitzvahs. That’s not to say we’ve never tried these things, though. My mother had taken my sister and me to services at a temple on assorted high holidays. We had thrown bread into a river on Rosh Hashana one time, throwing out the so-called sins of our past year along with the symbolic bread. I had attended a weekly Hebrew school at the local JCC in my fourth grade year, at which I learned basic words in Hebrew and stories from the Torah. I had even considered having a bat mitzvah at one point, an idea quickly dismissed because it had required too much work, including reading portions of the Torah in a language that felt totally foreign to me. I seem to participate only in the fun traditions that come with Judaism, ignoring the ones that aren’t as shiny and attractive.

This practice of being a barely-Jewish Jewish girl can sometimes lead to the feeling of being an outcast in especially Jewish situations. I know a few Jewish kids at my school and two of my closest friends are Jewish, but when surrounded by them I feel sort of excluded. They all know at least a bit of Hebrew, most of them go to temple, many of them attend Jewish camps in the summertime. I can relate to none of these things. When someone has a question about a certain part of Judaism, the other Jewish kids I know can answer. I can’t. Non-Jewish kids at school know that these kids are Jewish. They don’t usually know that I am. I sort of get stuck in the middle of not Jewish enough for the Jewish kids but not quite goy (Yiddish word for a non-Jew) enough for the other kids.

Although this outcast feeling can be a bit frustrating or embarrassing at times, I don’t mind it that much. This is because I know my level of participation in my religious culture is entirely up to me. I have the choice to seek out religious experiences and explore my Jewish culture to its full extent. I have these options, I’m just not too eager to accept them. Of course, I love my Jewish heritage and the small ways in which I celebrate it, but I have never really felt the need to become more involved in my religion. This is largely due to the fact that, like my father, I do not personally feel a connection to the idea of faith or a god. Even as a kid, the idea that a god existed felt sort of like the idea that Santa or the Easter bunny existed. I never prayed- at least not the way I think you’re supposed to- and I still haven’t today. Instead I would occasionally make little wishes in my head to some god I didn’t understand, thinking please, if there is a god and you exist and you hear me right now, let me get a 100 on my math test tomorrow, thank you. As I’ve grown older, I stopped making these little wishes, believing in my heart that if you wish something to happen, you must work for it yourself. No unknown force is going to arrange your life for you, you control your decisions.

Gathering my beliefs one by one, I came to realize that I don’t quite fit into the systems of Jewish beliefs. Obviously, as a monotheistic religion, the most basic belief of Judaism is a belief in one god. Since I do not really believe in any god or higher power, I find that I am not motivated to explore Jewish religious spirituality for myself, or any type of religious faith really. I don’t mind learning about the beliefs and customs of my own culture, in fact I find it interesting. I just don’t seek to tune my own life into some sort of religious path, and I don’t feel tempted to follow any god. It may seem that I don’t believe in  any Jewish teachings, but that is not true. One of Judaism’s principles is that one should do good for the sake of doing good. Judaism believes that the actions one commits are more important than their faith, that Jews should do good deeds to increase their prosperity and the prosperity of others. I believe in this too.

With my half-connectedness, my half-belief, I still find my Jewish culture to be an important part of my identity. I feel as if I am Jewish in heritage and culture, but not entirely Jewish in faith. This does not make me any less Jewish than anyone else who shares my culture. It still is a largely significant part of who I am, and it allows me to connect with others. When I see a positive representation of a Jewish person in media, like a non-stereotypical Jewish character in a book, I feel happy, connected, proud. I can relate to the character, and see part of me in them, and similarly find a part of them in me.

Although unfortunately, this is rarely how Jewish representation in media goes. I am acutely aware that people hate Jews. Jews as a cultural group have been repeatedly persecuted, exiled, and excluded throughout history. I’ve heard nearly all of the Jewish stereotypes under the sun. We’re frugal, we have big noses, we control Hollywood, we’re spoiled. People can argue that Jews have it way better now, that persecution has greatly decreased. To some extent I agree. Jewish people appear to be less publicly shunned nowadays, but really the shunning has just changed its appearance. Now, discrimination against Jews has evolved into more subtle forms, taking the shape of Anti-Semitic jokes and ignorant predispositions. Anti-Semitism also thrives more publicly and shamelessly in the heart of America’s white nationalist movements, assuming the form of Nazi flags and chants at white supremacist rallies.

Anti-Semitism is a haunting reality for Jews. When I see it on the news or hear it from the mouths of ignorant classmates cracking “jokes”, it makes me aware of my culture. It makes me angry, but it does not make me ashamed. I know that my culture is a source of pride, not of disgrace. I am Jewish and I always will be. I am proud of this part of me. I always will be.


And, I am proud of Darla, for being able to reflect so beautifully and honestly here on what being Jewish, even if she doesn’t “look” Jewish, means to her.



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