My Journey to Jewishness

My Journey to Jewishness by Emily Duckworth - Photo by Elena Eisenstadt

As I closed the cover of the book, I felt the world shift around me. I suddenly realized I would never view myself in the same way. I had just finished reading Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl at age 10.

I grew up in a small, economically depressed town in a rural North Carolina community. My mother and I were the only Jewish people in town, there were no synagogues, and most of my peers had never met a Jewish person. After reading Anne’s harrowing story, I began to make a connection with my Jewish heritage. As I looked around my school and community, I realized that I did not quite fit in with the prevailing social milieu. Unlike all of my friends, my parents and I did not attend church on Sundays or participate in all of the social activities associated with church membership. I felt disconnected, like a sort of “other” among a fairly homogeneous student population. Although I did not grow up actively practicing Judaism, Anne’s diary forever changed my self-identity. I was able to recognize that being Jewish alters my relationship with the world-at-large, impacting the way others perceive me and the way I view myself. In subsequent years, I came to realize that many of my classmates were not educated about Judaism, did not respect my being Jewish, and even made anti-Semitic statements.

It was a sunny afternoon in seventh-grade science class, and before class began, my friend Kylie approached me holding a New Testament Bible. She shoved the book into my arms, stating, “Here, take this. You could use it.”

I stared back, dumbfounded. “Um, thanks, but I don’t need this,” I responded.

“Yes you do. So you can be saved! If you have any questions about it, I wrote down my phone number and my church’s number in the back.” She gave me a warm smile and turned away, heading back to her seat.

I looked around at the three other students sitting at my table, silently asking if what just transpired was normal. They simply smiled back and began retrieving last night’s homework.

Later, during eighth grade, it became popular to insult people by calling them “Jew.” I remember feeling confused and outraged when I heard this. When studying the Holocaust, some kids made inappropriate jokes such as, “What’s the difference between coal and a thousand Jews? Jews burn longer.”

The apathy I experienced over the years in my own town and within my own circle of friends was eye-opening. I am grateful that I experienced a self-awakening through Anne Frank’s diary. Anne’s story drove me to learn more about my Jewish heritage and is the primary reason for my interest in politics, history, ethics, and social justice. Prior to reading Anne’s diary, my 10-year-old self had no real grasp of humanity’s capacity for hatred, nor did I understand the ability of individuals to make an impact by expressing moral courage through acts of kindness and mercy. Anne’s story triggered my incipient understanding of the concept of righteousness, and the role of human agency in the world. My experience growing up as a member of a minority group has taught me to be sensitive to other people’s perspectives and needs, regardless of their backgrounds.

Being Jewish is just one part of my identity, but learning more about that aspect has helped me to develop into a better person; I am more interested in the world around me and the well-being of others. Anne Frank, despite her circumstances, never lost faith in the goodness of humanity, writing, “In spite of everything, I still believe people are good at heart.” Her wisdom and tenacity continue to inspire me in my personal journey. I hope to use my experience to contribute to making the world a more accepting and positive place for people with diverse outlooks and approaches to life.

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