A Jewish-Asian Couple’s Union Leads to a Scholarly Interest in Intermarriage

‘JewAsian’ authors Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt (Matthew Zimmerman Banderas)

One weekend night 15 years ago, a group of graduate students at the University of Chicago decided to interrupt their research long enough for a dinner party. Helen K. Kim made a chocolate tart with ginger cream filling. Her classmate Noah S. Leavitt regarded it and scoffed, “Nice use of your time, making a fancy dessert with all the homework we have.”

Ms. Kim did not exactly swoon at that snarky version of a pickup line. Over the next three weeks, though, Mr. Leavitt kept pursuing her in more polite fashion and they eventually went out for dinner and drinks. Very quickly, the two aspiring academics found themselves talking in candid detail about the recent and untimely deaths of their fathers.

From that encounter grew not only their own subsequent marriage but a joint scholarly interest in the very trend they embodied: intermarriage between Asian-Americans and American Jews. Their major research paper on the subject appeared in February, just three months before arguably the highest-profile example of the phenomenon, the wedding of Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, to his longtime girlfriend, Dr. Priscilla Chan.

To the limited degree that numbers exist, they suggest that the proportion of intermarriages of American Jews and Asian-Americans is growing. Statistics alone, though, tell only part of the relevant story. The Jewish-Asian love affair, as the research by Ms. Kim, 39, and Mr. Leavitt, 42, indicates, is built on a deep sense of shared commitment to “tight-knit families, hard work, and educational advancement,” as they wrote in the journal Contemporary Judaism. (Their study did not consider other types of Jewish intermarriage.)

Putting aside the matter of Mr. Zuckerberg’s billions, he and Dr. Chan typify much of what Ms. Kim and Mr. Leavitt found in their fieldwork. They met as fellow meritocrats in the rarefied air of Harvard. They enticed their friends to their wedding (and hid it from the news media) by couching it as a party to celebrate Dr. Chan’s graduation from medical school.

“It’s not surprising that at face value the general American public might look at the couples we studied or Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan and assume that there are going to be problems,” said Ms. Kim, a sociology professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. “But what I’ve learned is that it’s premature to kind of doom them because of superficial differences. I’ve been heartened by the commitment that undergirds our couples.”

Mr. Leavitt, a dean and teacher at Whitman, said he was struck by the comity even within the close, intense confines of family. “Just thinking about Jewish concerns about marrying outside of Judaism,” he said, “I went into this project expecting more examples of ‘My in-laws didn’t talk to me for five years’ or ‘They won’t come to my house.’ Very, very few of those. Even when we asked explicitly about those concerns, people had to stretch for examples.”

Predictably, the Zuckerberg-Chan wedding did set off some Jewish hand-wringing about how the tribe had “lost” him. The research by Ms. Kim and Mr. Leavitt, though, showed that, if anything, it is Asian heritage that loses in such marriages. Jewish ethnic identity and Judaic religious practice characterized most of the 31 intermarried couples they studied in depth, even though only five Asian-American spouses converted. The Jewish attachment seemed to deepen for those couples who had children.

“If you want to instill Jewish identity, you have resources available that may not be equivalent on the Asian-American side,” Ms. Kim said. “You have synagogues, day schools, J.C.C.’s, a text you can go to. And for a number of Asian folks in the second generation — and I can relate to this — they don’t know how to instill ethnic identity because they aren’t confident in their own sense of it.”

This phenomenon of Jewish-Asian intermarriage comes as a startling change for two immigrant groups that in the past had often made light of their differences. A famous rye-bread ad in the 1960s featured a Chinese-American man with the slogan, “You don’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s.” One of the unofficial rituals of American Jewish life is to spend Christmas seeing a movie and eating in a Chinese restaurant. The religion journalist Ari L. Goldman once interviewed an observant Jewish homemaker who explained that she kept three sets of dishes — for meat, for dairy and for Chinese takeout.

The early adopters in the realm of Asian-Jewish marriage included the jazz musicians Lew Tabackin and Toshiko Akiyoshi (1969) and the television personalities Maury Povich and Connie Chung (1984). The best statistical evidence for the trend appears in a research paper published in 2000 by Colleen Fong and Judy Yung. They found that more than 18 percent of marriages by Chinese- and Japanese-Americans were to American Jews — who constitute about 2 percent of the nation’s population.

Whatever the frequency of such marriages, the visibility of them has soared. Well before Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Chan exchanged vows, there emerged such intermarried power couples as Noah Feldman and Jeannie Suk, both Harvard Law School professors, and Amy Chua of “Tiger Mom” fame and Jed Rubenfeld, her colleague at Yale Law School. The late star of the Beastie Boys, Adam Yauch, was married to Dechen Wangdu, an activist for Tibetan independence.

“When we talked about choosing couples for diversity,” Mr. Leavitt recalled, “we looked at different parts of the country, different Asian ethnic groups, different religions for the Asian-American spouse. The one thing we didn’t see at all was diversity of education level or income level. Graduate degrees, advanced degrees, professional tracks were all very common.”

As for the scholars themselves, Mr. Leavitt and Ms. Kim have been married for a decade and are the parents of a son, Ari, and a daughter, Talia. Ms. Kim said she hopes the children will learn Korean language and history — as she, the daughter of Korean immigrants who insisted that she assimilate to America, did not. Meanwhile, the hybrid Kim-Leavitt family belongs to a synagogue, has Shabbat dinner weekly and celebrates many Jewish holidays, not just the American staples of Passover and Hanukkah. On the subject of conversion, Ms. Kim’s answer is a qualified no. But for years, she added, “I’ve been thinking about it.”