Faculty couple research cultural identity issues in Asian-Jewish intermarriage

Whitman professors Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt are what they are researching: an Asian-Jewish married couple. Over the past two years, they have interviewed nearly 40 couples from across the country in which one of the partners is Asian and the other is Jewish.

The project explores how such couples navigate their various identities. Eventually Kim and Leavitt will publish a book that examines the racial, ethnic and religious identities of Asian-Jewish couples and families.

“While much attention has focused on interfaith marriages between American Jews and their non-Jewish spouses, we know very little about marriages of racially and ethnically diverse couples where there is at least one Jewish partner,” said Leavitt, visiting assistant professor of sociology and general studies. “There is a dearth of information about Asian-Jewish families. Our project aims to fill this gap.”

“The research covers a wide range of subjects, including childhood and adolescent experiences, family dynamics, religious and cultural practices, professional involvements, civic and community commitments,” added Kim, assistant professor of sociology.

In 2009 they presented their initial research at the annual meeting of the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), which took place in Los Angeles. A few highlights of the findings:

All of the couples with children are raising them as Jews.
There is little tension among extended families as might be expected for couples who are of different backgrounds.
One of the main factors they identify as bringing them together is a similar value system rooted in education, hard work and strong family ties.
Recently their work was cited in media reports about a new book by Yale Law Professor Amy Chua, titled “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” The book, which has been the subject of enormous media commentary, is about the author raising her children in a Chinese culture with a strict achievement-oriented regime. It addresses issues of parenting, racial and religious stereotypes and intermarriage. Leavitt and Kim said that through their series of interviews they “found nothing close to the way Amy portrayed the way she mothered” her children.

Kim and Leavitt have been together about 14 years, married for eight. They met when both were in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. They came to Whitman in 2005 and since have added to their family – son Ari Kim-Leavitt was born in 2008.

Relative to the types of information they seek from their research subjects, Leavitt and Kim say about themselves that they “have a much more nuanced way of discussing the various components of each of our identities than we did during our early years together.” They have also “increased the level of Jewishness in our household” since the birth of their son.

In part, the impetus for the research was a personal desire to deepen their understanding of how their relationship works. That, plus “knowing a number of Asian-Jewish couples among our peer group and seeing a total and surprising absence in the academic literature of any explanations or interpretations of couples like this,” Kim said.

Whitman has helped support the research through Perry and Abshire awards. And the couple has worked with a think-tank in San Francisco, the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, where they are Research Scholars. The institute’s project addressing Jewish diversity, Be’Chol Lashon, helped them develop and disseminate an online survey that they used to identify potential couples to interview.

To gather the data, they distributed the survey through the various national networks Be’Chol Lashon moderates. They also reached out to other national networks of American Jewish life, and to friends. The survey circulated around the country for about a year, and they received hundreds of responses. From those responses they selected couples who seemed to offer particular or unique perspective on what an Asian-Jewish couple might mean, or look like.

To date they have presented their findings at a variety of academic conferences, including those covering Asian-American studies, Jewish studies, sociology and Black studies. Several short articles will be published soon. They’ve also talked about developing an academic course that would look broadly at intermarriage and explore some of the issues that they’ve seen through their interviews and many others that arise in other types of mixed partnerships.

For now, they’ll continue to assess the data and navigate being professors and parents of a two-year-old.