JewAsian: Questions of identity, belonging will touch people’s lives

Laura Simeon July 13, 2017 0

JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews by Helen Kiyong Kim, Associate Professor of Sociology, and Noah Samuel Leavitt, Associate Dean for Student Engagement, both at Whitman College in Walla Walla, WA, explores the experiences of Jewish-Asian intermarried couples and their children. This demographic represents a small but increasingly high-profile community thanks to power couples such as Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld.

Seven years in the making, this book is particularly timely given recent discussions of the viral video of Professor Robert Kelly, a white American man whose live BBC interview was famously and hilariously interrupted by his offspring. The widespread misconception by many social media commentators that his Korean wife, Kim Jung-a, was actually the children’s nanny led to the explosion of #NotTheNanny on Twitter, and a public conversation around the visibility of multiracial families and stereotypes of Asian women. Similarly, many people’s mental image of Jews does not encompass people of color, including biracial children of Jewish-Asian marriages. This invisibility in turn has a direct impact on how many biracial Jews express their faith.

JewAsian is a concise book that covers a remarkable amount of ground in a clear and comprehensive way, starting with an overview of the general state of religious affiliation and racial identity in the United States and moving on to past and present debates over what intermarriage—both interracial and interfaith—means in the context of majority U.S. culture as well as to religious and ethnic minority cultures. The authors relate similarities and differences between the experiences of Jewish and Asian immigrants and their descendants, and present the results of their interviews with people in Jewish-Asian marriages and with 18-to-26-year-olds who grew up as the children of such marriages. Hundreds of volunteers responded to their recruitment survey, allowing them to choose a deliberately diverse sample of subjects.

As Leavitt and Kim embarked on their research they observed that prior studies about intermarriage tended to focus on either race or religion, but not both; in particular, studies of Jewish Americans “have almost exclusively focused on Jewish-Christian marriages” and have “paid scant attention to racial difference,” while “the literature on intermarriage for Asian Americans does not account for religious difference” (p. 50). In confronting these blind spots their research truly sheds new light on this topic, and just as importantly, their findings turn previously accepted wisdom on its head.

The widespread belief that intermarriage weakens Jewish identity and results in a loss to the community is contradicted by their research, which shows a consistent pattern of Jewish-Asian parents intentionally cultivating a strong sense of Jewishness in their children. In addition, adult children of such marriages—drawn from a completely different sample group than the couples they interviewed—also express a deep and abiding attachment to their Jewish heritage and a clear sense of their identity as Jews. A perceived compatibility between what the couples describe as Asian and Jewish values resulted in virtually no reported instances of serious conflict as they integrated their belief systems into a single family unit. Kim and Leavitt speculate that demographic similarities between Jews and Asians (for example, relatively high levels of educational attainment and economic success) have brought many individuals from these two groups into close proximity, resulting in relationships that neither side intentionally sought out.

In JewAsian, Leavitt and Kim cover territory that is not only highly compelling in its own right, but also pertinent to wider conversations about identity in America today. Their findings are of personal interest to people from multicultural families, but given that in “2010 approximately 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States were between spouses of different racial, ethnic, or religious backgrounds” insights into their lives increasingly have relevance to us all. As the child of an interracial, religiously mixed marriage myself, I was intrigued by this book and eager to sit down and speak with the authors via Skype.

An intermarried Jewish-Asian couple raising two children of their own, Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt have inevitably been personally influenced by the process of conducting this study. During our conversation they described being surprised at how consistently they heard positive messages about identity from adult Jewish Asians. Having anticipated hearing more about stress or internal conflict, they instead found that these individuals drew strength and confidence from the richness and complexity of their heritage. These young adults were characterized by a genuine enjoyment and savoring of their cultural and religious backgrounds. Seeing this in turn encouraged Leavitt and Kim to relax and realize that it was less important to carefully curate their children’s religious and cultural exposure and more important to simply provide as much exposure as possible, whether through language lessons, travel opportunities, or rituals and practices that together will enrich their children’s sense of belonging to both sides of their family heritage.

However, the authors said that many couples reported finding it harder to locate Asian cultural resources or organizations for their children; by contrast, the Jewish community—through Hebrew school, synagogues, and community centers—offers more readily available networks for families to connect with.

Kim and Leavitt were validated in their belief that it’s important to prepare their children for the realities of the outside world by talking honestly about negative as well as positive experiences. Race undeniably has an impact on one’s encounters with the world at large, and the biracial people they interviewed reported the incredible value of the honest conversations about race and racism they had with their parents.

Following the publication of their book, Leavitt and Kim have traveled and spoken widely about their findings. Jewish audiences have been intrigued by the implications of the fact that intermarriage need not spell doom for their community, contrary to the dominant narrative that has been widely accepted as fact for some time.

One possible avenue for future research would be a longitudinal study of their Jewish-Asian subjects. After all, they point out, they interviewed these teens and twenty-somethings at a formative stage of their lives, capturing just one slice of time as they spoke about their sense of self and imagined how they might feel in the future. It would be fascinating to follow them over the long term to see what actually happens as they grow older.

Whether you are Asian, Jewish, both or neither, JewAsian is a thoughtful, engaging, and relevant read given that American society is in the midst of unprecedented religious and ethnic changes. The questions of culture, belonging, heritage, and identity that are at the core of this book ultimately touch all of our lives and we can learn a great deal from the voices of the people you meet within its covers.

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