JewAsian

Race, Religion, and Identity for America's Newest Jews

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Helen Kiyong Kim, Noah Samuel Leavitt
Studies of Jews in Society Series
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , July
     2016.
     198 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780803285651.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews, Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt attempt to discuss and analyze the complexities of racial, ethnic, and religious identities in Jewish-Asian intermarriages and families. In so doing they are responding, not only to recent sociological trends of increased rates of interracial and interfaith marriages in the United States, but also to popular and academic discussions about the effects of such trends on Jewish American communities and identity. Kim and Leavitt, themselves a married Jewish-Asian couple, contend that despite the concerns of religious and cultural dilution or syncretism within such marriages—which necessarily disrupts the generational transmission of essential beliefs and traditions—Jewish-Asian marriages and families consistently and intentionally seek to preserve their Jewish identities in tandem with their Asian identities. As such, Kim and Leavitt seek to demonstrate that interracial and interfaith marriages are not inherently or necessarily a danger to the integrity or longevity of the Jewish American community or identity; rather, they present opportunities for Jewish Americans to consider and reconsider the religio-raciality associated with Judaism in an increasingly multicultural America. Indeed, Jewish-Asian intermarriages and JewAsian individuals contribute to the contemporary complications of racial, ethnic, and religious categories and identities, thereby expanding the ways in which Jewishness can be conceptualized and considering the strategies by which such families and individuals navigate their own identities.

To accomplish this, Kim and Leavitt first provide an extensive overview of sociological trends concerning religion and interracial marriages in the United States, the historical context of Jews and Asians in America, and considerations of racial, ethnic, and religious formation and identity. This exhaustive—yet essential—synopsis of major themes, trends, and theories rightly takes up the first half of the book, setting the expansive foundation for their own study, which is the focus of the second half. Therein, Kim and Leavitt discuss and analyze in-depth interviews they conducted with thirty-four married Jewish-Asian couples (focus of chapter 5, “Love and Marriage”) and thirty-nine children born from Jewish-Asian partnerships (focus of chapter 6, “What About the Kids?”). Through such interviews, the authors discover that individuals in Jewish-Asian relationships consistently identify and articulate a set of common cultural values between Jewishness and Asianness, such as strong emphases on family relations, work ethic, and educational advancement. While such similarities help create a common bond across different cultures, as well as resist societal criticisms of such intermarriages, these interviews also reveal the intentional preservation of Jewish identity and traditions in the home. Consequently, children of Jewish-Asian partnerships continue to identify as Jewish into adulthood—viewing their biraciality as complementary and comprehensive, not contradictory or fragmented. In this way, biracial identity is understood as a hybridized identity rather than syncretized, embodying elements and aspects of both inherited identities while preserving the integrity of each. 

While there is much to commend in this study, there remains some problematic methodological and analytical aspects that stand as significant questions and challenges to the discussions engaged and conclusions drawn. First and foremost, this study appears to conflate cultural/ethnic and religious values in notably imprecise ways. Notwithstanding the broad generalization of Asian culture and values in conjunction with Jewish values, such categories obfuscate the influence of religio-ethnic commitments and identities on individuals and families. For instance, while Kim and Leavitt ably discuss the difficult dynamic of Jewish ethnic and religious identities, this discussion is largely absent in the treatment of their Asian American subjects. They even note that most of their Asian American subjects lacked a strong religious identity, claiming that religion did not play a significant role in the formation of their personal values (84-85). As such, there is a methodological disconnect between the religio-ethnic identity of their Jewish American subjects and the sole, generalized ethnic identity of their Asian American subjects. Consequently, this study obviates discussions of Asian American religio-ethnic identity and discussions of religious hybridization and negotiation. To be fair, however, this aspect might be an inherent characteristic of the study rather than an oversight—especially since Kim and Leavitt distributed their surveys and acquired their subjects primarily through Jewish communities and organizations (see “Appendix: Methodology). Their study appears to first question how bi-racial Jews and Jewish families negotiate their own Jewishness. Indeed, interrogating the complexities of marriages, at once both interreligious and interethnic, wherein partners seek to preserve their own religio-ethnic identities and pass them onto their children, might be a separate study altogether. 

For this reason, the subtitle of the text should be read plainly and, perhaps, more seriously than the title proper. Indeed, JewAsian stands as an important intervention into recent sociological discussions on Jewish Americans and Jewishness, but it falls short in thoroughly addressing the complications and complexities of interreligious families, and broader discussions of religio-raciality and religio-ethnicity beyond Jewishness. Nevertheless, this interdisciplinary study wonderfully attends to the lived experience of multi-racial Jews themselves. As such, the authors take seriously the questions, struggles, and strategies of these individuals and families in affirming and asserting their Jewishness in conjunction with their multiracial identity, as well as in the context of cultural racial presumptions of what constitutes Jewishness. In so doing, they discuss and demonstrate the compatibilities of Asianness and Jewishness both historically and culturally, thereby expanding the conception of American Jewishness beyond normative racial and ethnic categories. In that way, this study has more than scholarly significance, but also has important practical implications for American Jews and Jewish communities in an increasingly multiracial and interreligious society. Indeed, the rapid changes of culture and societal demographics need not necessarily endanger the preservation and propagation of Jewish identity and community. Rather, such changes can represent the potential and promise of an American Judaism that faithfully engages the multiplicity of Jewish American identity and experience. For this reason, those academically interested and/or personally invested in Jewish American identity—especially as it concerns race and interracial families—will benefit from the interesting and productive discussions and questions in this book.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jesse J. Lee is a doctoral student in American Religious HIstory at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
May 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Helen Kiyong Kim is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at Whitman College. Her work has been published in the Journal of Jewish Identities and Forward and has been anthologized in several publications.

Noah Samuel Leavitt is Associate Dean of Students at Whitman College and has served as the advocacy director for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. His work has appeared in a wide range of publications including Contemporary Jewry, Slate, the International Herald Tribune, and Forward.

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