Book review: Race and religion: studying Jewish and Asian intermarriages

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Intermarriage in the United States has alternately been called the largest challenge and the greatest opportunity for the Jewish community. However, not all intermarriages are alike, as shown in Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt’s “JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews” (University of Nebraska Press). Although this is a scholarly work, the impetus for the book is personal: Kim, an associate professor of sociology at Whitman College, and Leavitt, an associate dean of students at Whitman College, are married and have two children. Their relationship led them to wonder about the nature of these marriages and also how the dual identities of being Asian and Jewish affects the children. In this study, they interview members of two generations to answer questions about the impact race, religion and ethnicity have on their lives.
When offering statistical information from several general population studies, the authors note that the greatest number of interracial marriages occur between white and Asian populations. However, few studies look specifically at Jewish-Asian intermarriages. Focusing on these marriages is complicated by the problem of defining who is a Jew. For example, people acknowledge a Jewish connection based on either religious practice, culture or ancestry, or a combination of these factors. However, not everyone accepts all these definitions – particularly when dealing with those who consider themselves Jewish by patrilineal descent. Deciding whether or not Judaism is a religion or an ethnicity makes the issue even more complex.
After this general introduction on intermarriage, the authors narrow their focus to marriages between Jews and Asians.. There are several charts listing the demographics of those they interviewed – noting details about Jewish American spouses, Asian American ones and the children of these relationships. Many of the parents come from similar social and economic classes, and have the same ideas about family and education, which makes for less stress between spouses. The authors also note that both Jews and Asians are members of “model minorities,” ones that are considered hard-working and law-abiding.
Some of the findings surprised the authors. For example, there was more support from the non-Jewish parents in helping to raise the couple’s children as Jewish than they expected: “The Jewish parents in these 18 households with minor children, sometimes on their own but far more frequently with the support and active engagement of their spouses who were not raised as Jews, are working broadly and deliberately to bring Judaism and a sense of Jewish identity to their family.” At the same time, some of the Asian parents worry about installing an Asian identity in their children because it’s harder to define what makes them Asian and fewer organized groups to help them.
The children of these marriages told the authors that they felt pride in their mixed identity. Some like the fact that people can’t easily guess their race and ethnic status. Challenges do arise because of this, though: for example, people may question how someone of mixed race could be Jewish. This occurs more frequently for those of patrilineal descent, but it still can be a issue for those whose mothers are Jewish.
Some respondents felt an imbalance between their Asian and Jewish identities – feeling more of a connection to their Jewish side because of their greater involvement in the Jewish community. For example, one person spoke of her years at a Jewish summer camp while noting that there was no complementary experience for her to learn about her Asian side.
It’s also hard for some to describe what they are in ethnic terms. The authors note that “interviewees used terms like ‘Chew,’ ‘Jewpanese,’ ‘HinJew,” and ‘Kojew’ to capture the various elements of their backgrounds in one language.” Some interviewed said that they enjoy their “unique status” as part of an “unusual” demographic – even with any problems that arise.
Kim and Leavitt are careful to explain the limitations of their research. Most of those they interviewed came from a Reform Jewish background. They are also aware that Asian-Jewish intermarriages are a very small segment of the intermarried Jewish community, making it impossible to generalize for other types of intermarriages. However, they do see these parents as successfully installing a Jewish identity in their children. The children interviewed noted that they value both their Jewish and Asian identities, and want to pass that heritage to their children. They also appreciate the fact that their parents encouraged them to explore both cultures and allowed them to make their own choices. Some still struggle to define their identity. This is partly because there are few role models available.
“JewAsian” is an excellent introduction to what will hopefully be the first of many works looking at the nature of specific types of intermarriage. Readers should note that this is a scholarly work. While there is not a great deal of difficult jargon, the prose is very dry. However, those interested in the sociology of contemporary Judaism will find much of interest in its pages.