Whitman College professors Helen Kim and her husband, Noah Leavitt are the leading, and virtually only, experts on Asian-Jewish intermarriage in the United States. The two — she’s Korean-American, he’s Jewish — recently spoke with JTA by phone from Walla Walla, Wash., where they live with their 6-year-old son Ari and 3-year-old daughter Talia. This is an edited transcript.
Q: You’ve published two studies on Asian-Jewish families: the first on couples, the second on grown children of Asian-Jewish parents. What do you see as the most significant findings?
A: Kim: The most significant thing about both talking with the couples as well as the kids is that these families are definitely creating Jewish homes and raising their kids as Jews.
But isn’t that because couples and individuals with stronger Jewish ties are more likely to volunteer for a study about Jewish-Asian families?
Leavitt: We tried to select from as wide a diversity of feelings about Judaism as possible. We weren’t looking for particular kinds of Judaism or levels of attachment to Judaism.
Any idea how many Jewish-Asian households there currently are in the United States, or what percentage of Jews who intermarry marry Asians?
Kim: We don’t. The U.S. Census is barred from collecting religious identification information, and among Jewish researchers, the collection of racial demographics is just beginning.
To what extent do your findings reflect your own experiences as an Asian-Jewish couple?
Kim: There were definitely some similarities. One of the things our interviewees talked about was feeling like they didn’t really know how to transmit a sense of Asian ethnicity. Whereas the Jewish piece, regardless of what their attachment or experiences with Judaism were like in the past, they always talked about feeling like there was a synagogue or JCC or Hebrew school they could go to. Those issues certainly play out in terms of our family. … Doing the Jewish piece is perhaps easier because there is a Jewish community even in a place like Walla Walla. … Not so much for the Korean piece or the Asian piece. It’s harder, because often there isn’t the same type of community with a critical mass or organizational structure.
Was your marriage a source of conflict within your extended families?
Kim: No, and in terms of the couples that we interviewed, there was very little conflict. The way couples explained that [lack of conflict] was their perceived cultural similarities [such as a shared emphasis on family, education and achievement].
In your recent study, you asked people with an Asian parent and a Jewish parent what advice they’d offer for Asian-Jewish couples with children. What did they say?
Leavitt: They over and over said that they would encourage parents to provide as much as possible of everything. … They said, “Make sure you’re giving kids as many options to understand what they’re about, because they’ll be more confident.” Sometimes there’s parental anxiety about confusing kids, but the people we interviewed said, “Give it all to us, because we can sort it out.”
Your latest study is called “Funny — You Don’t Look Jewish.” Did the people you interviewed hear this a lot?
Kim: A number of the kids look [racially and ethnically] ambiguous to a casual observer. … A lot of people felt their Jewish identity was called into question because they didn’t look like what people think Jews in this culture look like. The couples were very attentive to the racial presentation of their kids, especially when they had more than one kid and they presented differently and were treated differently based on that. One of the things that happened was the kids responded to not being guessed for who they are by developing a conscious cultural identity about being Jewish..