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Museum Musings

9.2.16: Reflecting on the Café Conversation: “America’s Newest Jews”

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On July 13, the National Museum of American Jewish History hosted Drs. Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt of Whitman College, who held a conversation on their new book, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews. Inspired by their own family, Kim and Leavitt researched and wrote JewAsian as a qualitative examination of the intersection of race, religion, and ethnicity in the increasing number of households that are Jewish American and Asian American. Jeremy Wolin, who interned this summer in the Marketing and Communications department of the Museum – and who identifies as “JewAsian” himself – attended the talk and reflected on the experience:

When asked about how Jewish-Asian couples choose synagogue affiliation, Helen Kim responded that of the couples she and Noah Leavitt interviewed, choices ranged from calculated searches for the most inclusive synagogue in the region to which would require the shortest drive. However, she claimed, many of their respondents spoke of a consistent theme – that where each couple found a source of community was often not where they first expected.

This discovery held true for me at last month’s Café Conversation, “America’s Newest Jews,” where I listened to Kim and Leavitt essentially describe my childhood in their findings. Kim and Leavitt, partly in response to their own family’s background, have researched the emergence of “JewAsian” families, those in which one parent is Jewish-American and one is Asian-American. I identify as part of this new demographic: my father is Korean-American; my mother is of Ashkenazic Jewish heritage.

The similarities between Kim and Leavitt and my own family were at times uncanny – the academic parents who met in graduate school, one Korean American from the Bay Area, one Jewish American from the Northeast; the effort to learn Korean; and the mixed (and at times contradictory) cultural and religious practices.

My childhood also echoed Kim and Leavitt’s finding that both parents often adopt the other’s cultural and religious practices. My father does the majority of the cooking in our household, so of course he cooks our Passover Seder. My mother’s chopstick technique is more correct than my father’s, and my dad’s more flexible schedule meant that he always drove me to Hebrew school despite my constant protests.

Growing up in an inclusive Reform synagogue in Connecticut, I was immune to many of the issues that could have arisen as a Jew of mixed identity. At one extreme of inclusion, my Bar Mitzvah service included a speech by my uncle, a minister in the Konko sect of the Shinto religion, and one of my non-Jewish Asian-American cousins recited a poem he had written. Yet, when more conservative synagogue leadership later kept my father from certain modes of participation, or bungled his foreign-sounding name for comedic effect, I found it hard not to wonder if his and my Asian-American identity was a factor in our otherness – an identifier that visually labeled my dad and my family as different.

Kim and Leavitt noted this same reaction in what perhaps has been the highest profile Jewish-Asian union: the marriage of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan. The little pushback that the couple did receive came from American Jews who warned of “losing” a Jewish man and his children to intermarriage, often without knowledge of Chan’s religion nor any knowledge of the family’s intentions.

Yet, with a 2010 Pew Research Center survey demonstrating that nearly nine out of ten millennials accept interracial marriage and a 2012 survey showing that Jewish intermarriage has steadily risen since the data was first tracked in 1970, the Zuckerberg-Chans are emblematic of tomorrow’s American Jews. How these families and their children are received by the Jewish community will truly determine whether “America’s newest Jews” are “lost.”

At last month’s Café Conversation, I found the National Museum of American Jewish History committed not only to preserving, but to celebrating these diverse narratives of American Jews, and I, too, found an unexpected sense of community.

– Jeremy Wolin, NMAJH Intern, Brown | RISD ‘19