With Jewish-Asian marriages on the rise, academic couple takes on subject close to home
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With Jewish-Asian marriages on the rise, academic couple takes on subject close to home

Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt's new book tackles assumptions about Jewish identities of intermarried families and their children

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

'JewAsian' authors Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt (Matthew Zimmerman Banderas)
'JewAsian' authors Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt (Matthew Zimmerman Banderas)

When Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim first met and started dating in graduate school in 1997, they didn’t know many other couples that looked like them.

Fast forward a decade, and the Jewish-American Leavitt and the Korean-American Kim, by then married and soon to become parents to the first of their two children, started to notice that not a week went by without at least one Asian-Jewish couple appearing in the New York Times wedding announcements section. Then in May 2012, Facebook’s Jewish founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wed Chinese American physician Priscilla Chan, by which time Asian-Jewish marriages were so common that many pundits found no reason to even mention the inter-ethnic aspect of the union.

Kim, 43, an associate professor of sociology, and Leavitt, 47, an associate dean of students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, started to wonder whether marriages between Jews and Asians were becoming a trend, and if so what draws these couples together — and how do they decide how to raise their children given racial, ethnic and sometimes religious differences?

As academics, they also noticed that there was a complete absence of exploration of the subject of Jewish-Asian couples despite there already being a significant amount of sociological literature on intermarriage in general.

“It’s common in the field of sociology to study people like yourself. Subjectivity informs our questions, and this is not seen as a negative at all,” Kim told The Times of Israel about the couple’s decision to embark on a seven-year-long study that would fill the evident void and culminate in their recently published, “JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews.”

'JewAsian' by Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt (University of Nebraska Press)
‘JewAsian’ by Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt (University of Nebraska Press)

A work with a strong academic underpinning, “JewAsian” is at the same time accessible to all readers interested in how Jewish-Asian couples and their families fit into broader contexts of multiracial identity and religiosity in the United States, as well as of intermarriage historically.

The most engaging sections of the book deal with the everyday lives of Jewish American and Asian American couples and the decisions they make in terms of racial, ethnic, cultural and religious identities as they raise their children, and with how the grown children of such families perceive their own Jewish identities. Significantly, they delve into what all this means for the American Jewish community as a whole.

Kim and Leavitt’s research is by far more qualitative than quantitative. “Our sample size is too small for our statistics to be generalized,” Kim stressed.

After sending out a survey through Be’chol Lashon, a division of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, to Jewish organizations, synagogues, rabbinical associations and social service organizations, they received 250 replies and chose 34 Jewish-Asian intermarried couples in Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, Oakland, New York and Philadelphia for in-person interviews. The couples varied widely in terms of religious identification and involvement, ethnic background, sexual orientation, gender pairings, and presence or absence of children. Despite the stereotype of an Asian American woman married to a white Jewish man, half of the heterosexual couples involved a white Jewish woman married to an Asian American man.

‘There are assumptions out there that mixed race kids who “don’t look Jewish” don’t have a robust Jewish identity and practice. This is wrong’

Thirty-nine adult children born to Jewish American and Asian American couples (none of them the offspring of the couples included in the study) living in the same metropolitan areas were interviewed. The small sample size included 14 males and 25 females, all ages 18 to 26. Twenty-two of these young adults claimed Chinese ancestry on their Asian parent’s side, with other ethnicities being Japanese, Filipino, Malaysian, Taiwanese, Korean and Indian. Jewish ancestry was overwhelmingly Eastern European, with 26 of the interviewees coming from Reform families, 2 from Conservative ones, and 11 from Jewish families with no religious identification. The religion of the Asian parents ranged from Jewish (converts) to Muslim to Catholic to Protestant, with four being atheists.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan at their wedding ceremony in Palo Alto, California, Saturday, May 19, 2012 (AP/Facebook, Allyson Magda Photography)
Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan at their wedding ceremony in Palo Alto, California, Saturday, May 19, 2012 (AP/Facebook, Allyson Magda Photography)

Despite the small sample size, it would seem the perception that Jews intermarry only with practicing Christians is erroneous. At the same time, it is hard to get a nuanced picture of what is really happening because large scale demographic studies, such as those conducted by the Pew Research Centers and the US census are restricted in terms of what kind of religious information they can ask for.

The researchers’ interest in learning about the alignment between what parents are trying to do and what grown children feel about their identities comes from an issue they deal with on a daily basis.

‘The perception that Jews intermarry only with practicing Christians is erroneous’

“We are both immersed in a liberal arts college where students are highly concerned with the question of identity. Many of our students are multiracial and multicultural,” Leavitt said.

“The students may be coming from these backgrounds, but they are also looking ahead to how the will create their own households that will likely involve racial and ethnic mixing. They are looking for examples of how to work through this, and in that sense, this book is for them,” he added.

The biggest takeaway from the interviews with the young adults was that many of them identify very strongly as Jewish.

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (courtesy)
Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl (courtesy)

“There are assumptions out there that mixed race kids who ‘don’t look Jewish’ don’t have a robust Jewish identity and practice. This is wrong. People make wildly inaccurate assumptions,” said Leavitt.

This finding about the young adults meshes with Leavitt and Kim’s discovery that Judaism and Jewish culture tend to predominate in these mixed households, with Asian spouses being on board with bringing up the children in the Jewish tradition. This can be in large part attributed to Asian admiration for Jewish tradition and culture, as well as the fact that the American Jewish community provides more resources for helping to raise children in the Jewish tradition than the Asian community does for raising children with Asian culture.

Indeed, Kim and Leavitt heard many of the Asian American parents they interviewed express concern about their ability to successfully transmit their Asian identities to their children.

At the same time, the adult children spoke about the importance for parents to expose their offspring to all aspects of their identities and heritages so they fully know who they are. This, they said, did not detract from their strong sense of being Jewish and interest in participating in Jewish life.

‘Today’s young adults don’t let people’s questioning the authenticity of their Jewish identity discourage them’

“There’s been a generational shift. Even Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, the first Asian American rabbi and first Asian American cantor, who is the daughter of a Jewish father and Korean mother, didn’t want to be Jewish as she was growing up because of the challenge. But today’s young adults don’t let people’s questioning the authenticity of their Jewish identity discourage them. They are proudly and actively Jewish. It’s cool to be Jewish and Asian. It’s not necessarily a conflict,” Kim noted.

On a community level, she hopes “JewAsian” will foster or be part of a continuing conversation on racial difference within the American Jewish population and the need for inclusivity, especially in terms of Jews of color.

Noah Leavitt, Helen Kim and their children at home in Walla Walla, Washington (Courtesy)
Noah Leavitt, Helen Kim and their children at home in Walla Walla, Washington (Courtesy)

In addition, the process of working on the study and book made a very personal impact on Kim and her husband.

“Our personal relationship has been informed by what we heard from the other families. The process made us reflect on our own life and provided a sort of reality check,” Leavitt explained.

Perhaps most significantly, the completion of “JewAsian” coincided with Kim’s decision to convert to Judaism last December.

‘I was finally ready to convert because now I could see myself reflected in the larger Jewish community’

“Until the conversion, I was similar to many of the non-Jewish spouses among our interviewees. Like them, I was on board and doing the work of raising Jewish kids,” Kim said.

Her four-year-old daughter Talia saw her as Jewish because she does Jewish things, but her son Ari, who is eight, didn’t see her as Jewish because she doesn’t have Jewish parents. It was important to Kim for her children, now old enough to understand, to see her convert.

“I was finally ready to convert because now I could see myself reflected in the larger Jewish community in terms of recent changes with regards to attention paid to people of color,” she said.

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