Passover, Matzah, and Being on the Outside Looking In

From ages 9 to 16, I lived in a neighborhood that was primarily Jewish, so Passover has special meaning to me- but it’s not what you would expect. Passover made me feel left out. I watched my friends’ families stock up on Kosher-for-Passover foods, and bring matzah in their school lunches everyday, while my peanut butter and jelly on white bread stood out like a scarlet letter.

To make matters worse, my mom’s friends would give us their leftover matzah after Passover. Now, I love matzah- just like I love gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, kugel, latkes and all the other foods I ate during those years. But my well-meaning mother would suggest I pack matzah in my lunchbox. And I’m here to tell you- there’s no bigger shame than being seen eating matzah AFTER Passover.

This does have something to do with writing…I’m getting there, stay with me!

I wouldn’t trade the experience of having lived in that town for anything in the world. Why? Few white, Christian Americans ever experience being a minority. As a non-Jew (aka goy) in our town, my brother and I were friends with all the black, asian, mormon, and foreign kids. Our posse looked like a model United Nations, or at least a Benetton ad.

Studies show that minorities have a more nuanced idea of cultural differences. For example, African Americans can makes lists both of things black people do that white people don’t, and also of things that white people do that black people don’t. Caucasians, on the other hand, may recognize how the African American community is different from them, but not how they differ from the African American community. It seems that if you’re in the majority, you can’t easily see how other groups see you.

As a writer, I use my perception of cultural differences all the time. I notice how Catholics are different from Protestants, who aren’t exactly like Mormons. I know that Latino families are large and close-knit, that Asian families can be reserved, that WASPs can seem cold and heartless, but have a system for showing affection that might not be apparent to outsiders.

In my most recent work-in-progress (MERCURY RISING), I have a scene where the god Mercury goes to his lover Dillon’s home in Mexico. I was a little nervous writing Dillon’s character because though I’ve been close with a couple latino families, I don’t live in Southern California or the Baja Peninsula and don’t know any families who are specifically Mexican.

Plus, Dillon’s family is poor by U.S. standards (though I imagined them being “normal” in the Baja region of Mexico.) So how could I, as a white middle class American writer, do justice to that experience?

Well, firstly I’m going to brag. My agent is latina- a Puerto Rican from Central Florida- and she mentioned to me how I did a really great job with the scene. She felt like it read as authentic. So if she thought my Dora the Explorer Spanish and and hints of Mexican culture made sense, then I think I did an OK job.

But the reason my scene in Dillon’s abuela’s house worked probably wasn’t the details I added about the matriarchal nature of his family, or the food they ate, or how I described their apartment. The scene probably worked because of Mercury’s reactions. As a fish out of water, the god watched the way the family interacted. He worried that he wouldn’t be able to act naturally in a group he didn’t fully understand.

He listened to them try to speak English on his account, and then tried to ignore the niggling sense that he only half-understood their conversation once they switched to rapid-fire Spanish. Mercury reasoned through every nuance of Dillon’s world the way only an newcomer can.

I’m not Mexican, but I sure know how it feels to step into a culture not my own.

To me, those outsider observations provide the best splashes of color and the finest shading to my worlds.

How about you? When do you feel like an outsider? Do you use that in your writing? If so, how?

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10 Responses to Passover, Matzah, and Being on the Outside Looking In

  1. Thank you for your post, Daisy.

    Am I an outsider? In most respects, no. But there is one, and it has to do with what to me is the most important aspect of my life.

    I live in a small, conservative, very Christian town in the Bible Belt. I have for most of my life. And for the past thirty-nine years, I’ve been a Buddhist.

    So as far as my religion goes, yes, you can say I’m a square peg. This colors my thoughts, my whole mindset really, about just about everything. Including, of course, the predominant religion in my neck of the woods and its various denominations, movements, and interpretations.

    Has my religion affected my writing? Of course, though not blatantly. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no such thing as Buddhist inspirational fiction.

    But to answer your question about how being an outsider has affected my writing, it’s hard to say. Many of my protagonists think and act outside the box, an attribute I admire. But that’s not quite the same thing as being an outsider.

    As for applying my experience as a non-Christian in a Christian community to my fiction—well, currently I’m writing stories about romance, adventure, and magic in medieval Britain. So obviously my experience in this regard won’t transfer in a literal sense.

    But in a not-so-literal sense? It’s food for thought. Thanks for suggesting it!

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    • Daisy Harris says:

      I think Buddhist inspirational literature would be fascinating! Do it!

      And thanks for stopping by. πŸ™‚

      Daisy

      Like

  2. danicaavet says:

    My aunt is from South Korea and I spent a lot of time with her. I remember one time I went to church with her. A Korean Baptist church and I was so self-conscious. Yes, they made me stand up so they could introduce me to the congregation, but they didn’t make me feel like an outsider. I couldn’t understand a word of the service, but their warmth kept me comfortable with them. *cough* The amazing food after the service helped, too.

    I grew up thinking it was normal for kids from south Louisiana to eat seaweed and rice and kimchee. I never knew it was different and now I can’t help but think how lucky I was to have experienced that. My complete acceptance of my aunt’s culture and food has helped us become close. I might not be able to speak Korean, but I can call her my Emo and show her my appreciation for the differences between us.

    I think a lot of people concentrate so much on differences, they forget that people are basically the same the world over. Yes, cultures, traditions, languages are all different, but we all want love and acceptance from those around us.

    Like

    • Daisy Harris says:

      Wow- a Korean Baptist church. Cool!

      I’d love to know more about Korean culture. In HS, my best friend was Chinese and my boyfriend was Japanese. I actually went with his family to Japan after graduation for a trip. It was AMAZING. His family lived in three houses all close together in a small town. (Well, a small town for Japan- still pretty densely populated by US standards.)

      How great for you that you got to experience another culture as part of your family growing up! Prolly why you’re so awesome. πŸ™‚

      D

      Like

  3. jeff salter says:

    Very thought-provoking. I spent my H.S. sophomore year being an outsider. Abruptly transplanted from S.E. Louisiana to IOWA.
    Not only the weather was different … a lot different, but everybody else knew each other. There was an exchange student from S. Africa and even he had friends!

    Oh, yeah, slowly, some of the kids warmed up to me. But my only ‘buddy’ was another transplant — a guy from Chile who felt as out of place as I did.

    Fascinating to write about being on the outside looking in.

    Like

  4. Daisy Harris says:

    One of the best things about being in the out-group is becoming friends with other outliers, like your Chilean friend. One of my brothers’ friends growing up was from Papua New Guinea. His grandma lived with his family- was covered in tribal tattoos and refused to wear shoes. She’d hang out in the grass shelling peas and such on their suburban lawn.

    Thanks for commenting, Jeff!

    Like

  5. I adore other cultures and learning about them. I was very lucky in that my father’s job required us to entertain a lot of foreign nationals in our home and in resturants. As I got older, I would also sometimes take these folks shopping at the local mall/shopping center for presents to take home with them. I’ll never forget the man from Turkey that bought a suitcase full of Levis as he could sell them for five times the price at home. I was always fascinated to learn from these folks. I was raised to respect our differences and celebrate our sameness. I write what I call “romantic adventures with an international flair” and I draw on the things I learned from these foreign nationals, as well as my own travel, in my work like you do with yours. Love this post, Daisy!

    Like

    • Daisy Harris says:

      It’s such a gift to know about cultures not our own. I love that I know that Dora the Explorer speaks English in France and that in Japan “love motels” are a neighborhood staple- for a culture where pre-marital sex doesn’t pose a restrictions, but most people live with extended families.

      Good for you working your awesome life experiences into your writing!

      Like

  6. Lynn Rush says:

    What a great post!!
    I often feel like an outsider, mostly because I’m not that great at the whole socializing thing. Especially in groups of people I don’t know. Unless I’m teaching…different story there. Plus, I don’t drink and when out with others, people seem to be threatened by the fact that I have plain ole cherry coke in my glass…..Strange. Then again, the worst was when I was an addictions therapist—> talk about a buzz-kill when people at a party asked what I did for a living. Oh my word. πŸ™‚

    And yes. I often integrate that into my stories. πŸ™‚

    Like

    • Daisy Harris says:

      That’s so funny- I have horrid teeth, so sodas are a bigger treat for me than wine. πŸ™‚ But yeah, it’s always an interesting experience being the odd man out. Invaluable life experience!

      Like

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