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.



6 Responses to “My Daughter Darla’s Essay On Culture”

  1. Diana October 23, 2017 at 7:20 am #

    I love Darla’s essay! She writes so beautifully and reflectively—thanks Darla for allowing your mom to share this. Culture is so much more than religion or spiritual and religious beliefs —as Darla stated, it’s values, and it’s also behaviors and norms, food and ways of being with others. I’m a secular humanist Jew, and I totally relate to Darla’s effort to figure out how she is Jewish as a non-religious person. My daughter too, while being one of those girls who is undergoing a Jewish education and has a lot more religious knowledge than her mom, always gets these questions of disbelief that she is Jewish from people who don’t know her. Of course the reason is because of migration patterns and anti-semitism combined—Ashkenazi Jews from E. Europe and Russia are the most prevalent group of Jews in the US, and there is a lot of anti-Semitic imagery (the hooked nose, beady eyes, and a wider set of stereotypical Barbara Streisand looks etc) associated with this group and extended to all Jews uncritically and unconsciously. And of course Nazism sadly and successfully created the false notion via eugenics that Jews are a race—which is of course only a social construct. Many Jews, though, including me, bc of my birth think of ourselves as an ethnicity—an intermarrying group who share cultural traits and language—but I’ve effectively changed that for my daughter because I married outside of Judaism and my E European and Russian Jewish background; and my grandparents also helped limit ethnic identity by not teaching both my sets of parents Yiddish. Well—thank you Wendy and Darla for promoting this reflection—and it gave me an idea for Passover! We love sharing our Judaism with you, Darla, btw—however you feel it!

  2. Miriam Diaz-Gilbert October 23, 2017 at 9:29 am #

    I enjoyed reading Darla’s essay. I have the opposite experience. Growing up everyone thought I was Jewish. “You’re Puerto Rican? But you don’t look it. Are you adopted? As I got older and even today, I’m told “But you don’t look Puerto Rican” and “Well, you’re not like the rest of them” Even Jon thought I was Jewish. And with a name like Miram, it’s assumed. But I’m Catholic and have Jesus’s. mother’s namesake. Mary is her Christian name; Miriam is her real Hebrew name. And we’re probably Sephardic Jews from Spain who were forced to convert during the Inquisition. My ancestors are from Spain and Puerto Rico. And there are Puerto Rican Jews. There are 3 synoquogues in San Juan Puerto Rico. My kids are half! Plus, we have way too many Hebrew names on both sides of my family. And when one is Catholic, one is a follower of Jesus who is Jewish. Catholicism is a sect of Judaism. Without Judaism, there is no Christianity or Catholicism. Our church rituals are based on Jewish rituals. So we’re all connected in many ways!

    • Sarah Grossman October 23, 2017 at 11:17 am #

      Interesting experiences Miriam, and I bet you heard a lot of that. And you and Nelly looked so different, and then there’s the whole Afro-Hispanic identity too. I remember Mike Cruz saying I’m not black, I’m Puerto Rican, while sporting a great Afro. Such a melting pot of race and culture. Have you done any DNA testing, I bet it would be interesting! Mine is pretty boring, 98.9% Ashkenazi Jew, Eastern European. Looking forward to seeing you at the reunion, after I get to hang out with my sister Wendy and her daughters.

  3. Sarah Grossman October 23, 2017 at 9:47 am #

    Thanks for sharing Darla’s essay. She is a thoughtful writer and person, and I loved reading about her Jewishness. I remember many student jokes, taunts and ignorance about being Jewish while growing up, and Darla does a great job of dealing with her identity. I would love to read her take on, “wait, you’re Native American?!”. Love to you all.

  4. Julie Gearan October 24, 2017 at 9:40 am #

    How great to get into Darla’s head for a bit today. She has a wonderful voice! These complex issues of identity remain interesting and mystifying throughout life, don’t they?
    That questioning and honest reexamination is so important for us all. Thanks for sharing, Wendy!

  5. Sherry Gordon October 24, 2017 at 3:35 pm #

    Well, hello, there, all, and greetings and salutations to you all and you all and each and every one of you For Always!!!! WOW, I, too, am just so, so very incredibly proud of brilliant, absolutely brilliant Darla!!!! Darla, you have very sagaciously composed such an outstanding essay here which is such a masterpiece of composition!!!! WOW!!!!! I love this so, so much, Darla!!!!! Sistah, your girl, Darla, and your other girl, Leni, are just so, so very gifted and talented as creative geniuses and geniuses in general being so, so very brilliant just like their Momma, Wendy Jane!!!!!! 🙂 <3 Each and every one of you I just love so all of your very amazing and in-depth comments so, so much that I wanted to be sure to write to all of you with my response!!!!!! 🙂 WOW, my very eyes are just so teary-eyed from this deeply beautiful, poignant, and profound blog post article here by absolutely FANTASTIC Darla!!!!! 🙂 I can just feel Darla's discomfort as the boy in her class seemed to ask her in an accusatory manner if she were Jewish. WOW, I think being Jewish is just so, so very beautiful and lovely, and I love so how Darla shared on being a Jewish young woman in terms of heritage and that she talked of not necessarily being a religious Jewish young woman. When I read with such rapt attention that this boy thought that she was Catholic because he thought that she "looked" Catholic it brought back a lot of memories for me. I am still Christian but I am no longer Catholic. I'm Protestant. I was raised Catholic but I left the Catholic Church shortly after I turned 20 a month after my birthday in March 1982 because the teachings of the Church and doctrines no longer set well with me and conflicted with my feminism and me trying to deal with and accept in warmly embracing my lesbianism. The Church's teachings just didn't ring true for me anymore. I used to be told when I was a lot younger that I acted Catholic! 🙂 Both of my parents were raised Baptist and when my mother was in her teens she converted to Catholicism. She was always very secretive about why she converted. Growing up she sent my two older brothers and I to Mass but she was not very involved with Mass and with the Catholic Church so it's a mystery to me why she even converted to the Catholic Church. I went to Catholic nursery school in the mid-1960s, public schools in kindergarten, private Catholic schools from the first through the ninth grades, and public school from the tenth through the twelfth grades. I so wanted to be an altar girl but they wouldn't let girls do that-only boys. I wanted to be a priest but they still don't let women be priests. Here and there I thought I wanted to be a nun when I was growing up even telling my parents when they were being mean and abusive that I'd run away and join a convent. When I was in high school I'd say that I was going to become a nun when the kids would pester me as to why I wasn't dating boys as a cover for the fact that I was gay and had no interest in boys!!!!!! 🙂 Darla and Wendy Jane and everybody, when I read that the boy in Darla's class thought that she "looked" Catholic wow did that make me percolate and brought back a lot of memories!!!!! I would love to be a minister if only my permanent and chronic, multiple physical disabilities and bad, permanent chronic pain weren't so bad!!!!! And in the Protestant church you can be in a relationship and be married unlike in the Catholic Church the priests and nuns had to remain single!!!!! 🙂 I so love Miriam's very powerful comment about how without Judaism there is no Christianity or Catholicism, and that the rituals in Christianity like with Catholicism were from beautiful Judaism!!!!! So, so very true and we all as Christians need to give wonderful Judaism such voluminous credit for this!!!!! 🙂

    I'm just so, so very proud of Darla's great love of her wonderful Jewish heritage. It was really interesting to read about how she isn't religious but does connect to her awesome Jewish heritage with such pride!!!!! WOW!!!!! That's great for this is such a beautiful heritage for sure!!!!!

    My very heart and spirit ache for Darla as she very deeply shares that as she says she is a barely-Jewish Jewish girl that she feels like an outcast in Jewish circles. I hurt so for Darla that she at times feels excluded and like she is deemed to be not Jewish enough. I'm so sad for dear Darla that she sometimes feels that she is not Jewish enough for some of the other Jewish kids and too not quite goy for the some of the other kids who are not Jewish. Darla is just so, so very incredibly brave as she navigates the very tricky terrain of traveling between two worlds here!!!!! 🙂

    WOW, my and our so, so very sweet sistah, Wendy Jane, I love so learning about Darla's and Leni's father's side of the family with their background. This was very interesting!!!!! WOW, it is just such great fun that Darla can enjoy Christmas even though it is not the heritage she connects to as she has such awesome and empowering pride in her Jewish heritage! 🙂 I just have such sheer delight in Darla's very powerful pride in the grandly great beauty of her Jewish heritage. She is very well attuned to the very vile hatred, oppression, and discrimination of vicious and perniciously pervasive antisemitism!!!!!! I just love so here how Darla engages with and connects to her very agency and empowerment as a young Jewish woman who will not be overcome by that evil antisemitism and it just brings such tears to my very eyes that she is proud and strong in her glorious Jewish heritage!!!!!! 🙂 WOW, I think this is just great here, my and our so, so very sweet Jewish sistah, Wendy Jane!!!!! WOW!!!!! I'm just absolutely bursting with being so proud of your girl, Darla, and your girl, Leni, too, and of YOU, sistahfriend, as the so, so very right on, wondrously wonderful Jewish woman who you are, Wendy Jane, and your girls are just like their Momma!!!!! 🙂 <3

    WOW, what an astounding essay here by Darla!!!!! She is just full of such astute and acute sagacity, Wendy Jane, and so is Leni, and I can just tell that they get this from their absolutely AWESOME Momma!!!!!! 🙂 <3 Wendy Jane, what a joyous blessing to read this absolutely AMAZING blog post article here with the great joy and blessing reading Darla's very deeply beautiful reflection here!!!!! What a joy, honor, blessing, and pleasure this was to read this, my so, so very dearest and darling, precious sistahfriend, Wendy Jane!!!!!! 🙂 WOW!!!!! YAY!!!!! YAY YAY YAY YAY!!!!!! Sistahfriend, please have such a totally terrific and a very thrilling Tuesday, a wondrously wonderful rest of your week, and also a wondrously wonderful weekend ahead, Wendy Jane, and Darla, and Leni, and each and every one of you!!!!!! 🙂 Sister, both of your precious girls, Leni and Darla, are just so, so very gifted and talented with creative brilliance just like their Momma!!!!! 🙂 <3 YAY for YOU, Wendy Jane!!!!!! YAY for Darla!!!!! YAY for Leni!!!!! WOW!!!!! YAY!!!!!! YAY YAY YAY YAY!!!!!! YAY for our very friendship and sisterhood, Wendy Jane!!!!! WOW!!!!! YAY!!!!! YAY YAY YAY YAY!!!!! I love you and cherish you so, so very much, Wendy Jane!!!!!! 🙂 <3 YOU, sisterfriend, and Leni and Darla are just the very greatest and the best and such the very, very epitome of such overall awesomeness!!!!! WOW!!!!! YAY!!!!!! YAY YAY YAY YAY!!!!!!! 🙂 <3

    Very Warmly and Sincerely For Always, my awesomely precious and dearly special soul sisterfriend Jewish white woman who you're For Always so, so very much, Wendy Jane, my so, so very sweet sisterfriend, with My and Spirit's Very Peace and Love For YOU and for all of you For Always, friend of mine, and with Such Blessings and Such Very Even More Blessings For YOU, Wendy Jane, and for each of you For Always, sister of mine,

    Yours For Always soul sisterfriend black woman and For Always in the very great spirit of unity and solidarity, Sherry Gordon in Iowa City, Iowa

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