Choosing Judaism in Asian-Jewish Homes

December 1, 2013
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When Mark Zuckerberg married his longtime girlfriend Priscilla Chan last year, the tech world was surprised at the unannounced nuptials. But the Jewish world wasn’t. The American Jewish intermarriage rate has surpassed 50 percent for almost two decades, and the October 2013 Pew Research Center report puts the rate at 58 percent for marriages from 2000 to 2013.1 Jewish-Chinese connections in particular are far from rare, and many extend more deeply than the Jewish cultural cliché of Chinese food on Christmas. We don’t have precise quantitative data about marriage between Jews and people of Chinese descent, but the qualitative information alongside the broader data about Jewish-Asian American unions show a remarkable trend that bucks larger statistics about intermarriage: Jewish identity for the household and children is very high.

Intermarriages between people of different races or ethnicities has increased immensely since Loving v. Virginia abolished racial restrictions to marriages in 1967; the most recent comprehensive study in 2008 marked interethnic marriages at an all-time high of 14.6 percent.2 When American Jews marry non-Jews, then, they follow a larger American trend of embracing unions across identity lines. Many Jewish leaders frame this as “the problem of intermarriage” and assume that intermarriage means the loss of Jewish individuals and their children to the community. In some cases, they are right. Sylvia Barack Fishman’s 2004 study of Jewish-Christian marriages suggested that only about a third of couples with children decided to raise them Jewish, and the 2001 National Jewish Population Survey suggested a similar figure across all Jewish intermarriages.3 And yet: in the case of Asian-American-Jewish marriages, Jewish identification — both religious and cultural — appears to be the norm.

When Colleen Fong and Judy Young set out to study Chinese and Japanese Americans who had married whites, they found that 18 percent of those white partners were Jewish.4 In light of the fact that only 2 percent to 3 percent of white Americans identify as Jewish, this proportion is striking. The classical assimilationist theory claims that the more people fit into a society, the less race and religion matter as factors in marriage. And this holds true: About half of Jews marry out; about a third of Asian-Americans do.5 But this can’t explain the rate of Jewish-Asian-American marriages. People also tend to partner with someone of a similar socioeconomic and educational background. In its most pragmatic version, this helps account for where people meet prospective partners. Especially in more educated demographics, such as Asian-Americans and Jewish Americans, this frequently means work or school. Still, a close look at the research suggests that there is more to the story.

In 2012, sociologists Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim interviewed 24 Jewish-Asian- American couples with children. They found that “almost uniformly, these children of these intermarriages are being raised as Jews.”6 Moreover, unlike many households in Jewish-Christian intermarriages, none of Leavitt and Kim’s interviewees described their household as “interfaith,” “multifaith,” or teaching children two religions. Because many of the non-Jewish parents described themselves as having “no religion,” choosing Judaism to the exclusion of other religious practices seemed to cause little tension.

Why might these Jewish-Asian-American intermarriages be so likely to become Jewish families? The same reasons researchers cite for the higher frequencies of Jewish-Asian-American marriages also contribute to choosing Jewish identity for the family. Interviewees noted that both Jewish and Chinese cultures value “strong family ties and educational achievement.”7 Of course, not every Asian-American parent is like “Tiger Mom” Amy Chua, who also happens to have a Jewish spouse, but interviewees consistently cited the importance of education for themselves and their children. While parents see education similarly valued in both cultures, they may find accessing and participating in Jewish culture easier, in part because of a greater availability of institutions.

The other common theme was that of the centrality of family. One woman interviewed in Leavitt and Kim’s study remarked: “I really have found the Jewish culture and the Chinese culture very similar… how we were raised and family values and such.” When the non-Jewish Asian parents talked about their support in raising children as Jews, they cited these same values. A Chinese-American man explained his feeling about joining his wife’s family as “comforting” and said that “it seemed very similar” because of the importance placed on family. Another Chinese-American man explained that “both Jewish and Chinese value systems are very compatible… I wasn’t really ever concerned about how we wanted to raise our kids” because of the fundamental similarities he experienced. In these cultural senses, intermarrying didn’t seem quite so much like “marrying out,” and it facilitated decisions about raising children.

The presence of institutions like synagogues, community centers, and schools make fostering Jewish identity accessible, often in a way that is more available than institutions that foster Asian cultural identity. While the two cultures are not mutually exclusive, the availability of Jewish culture and religion can make Jewishness easier to instill and maintain than an Asian identity from which today’s Asian-American parents may already feel a generation removed.

Through conversion, adoption, and being in Asian-Jewish families, more American Jews of Asian descent come into the Jewish community each year. Some Asian-Jewish families have struggled to find a synagogue where they feel at home, but others tell stories of warmth and welcome. Surely, not every Jewish-Chinese-American marriage will add to the ranks of the Jewish community, but it is clear that those who lament the “loss” to the Jewish community have been premature.

 

1  “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Pew Research Center, http://www.pewforum.org/2013/10/01/jewish-american-beliefs-attitudes-culture-survey/

Jeffrey S. Passel, Wendy Wang and Paul Taylor, Marrying Out: One in Seven New U.S. Marriages Is Interracial or Interethnic. (Washington: Pew Forum, 2010) DC: Pew Research Center.

Sylvia Barack Fishman, Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage, (Brandeis, 2004).

4 Colleen Fong and Judy Young, “In Search of the Right Spouse: Interracial Marriage among Chinese and Japanese Americans,” Amerasia Journal 21.3 (Winter 1995/1996): 83.

Passel, et al.

Helen K. Kim and Noah S. Leavitt, “The Newest Jews? Understanding Jewish American and Asian American Marriages,” Contemporary Jewry 32.2 (July 2012): 153

Fong and Young, 83.

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Sarah Imhoff is assistant professor of Jewish studies and religious studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. Her research focuses on gender, race, and American Judaism.

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