Deconstructing the Asian Jewish experience

A recent forum on Asian Jewish identities emphasized commonalties while shattering stereotypes. But before debunking the prevailing paradigm of the Ashkenazi Jew, the panel had to come to grips with an equally important question: What constitutes “Asian?” For example, the panel’s moderator, Dafna Wu, was born in Brazil to an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a Shanghainese father. Panelist Lori Rosenstein was born in Korea and raised in Vermont by her adopted parents – a Vermont-born Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother from Texas.

Given the panoply of perspectives, Wu asked the audience at the Bureau of Jewish Education’s Jewish Community Library in San Francisco to determine what stereotypes were being reinforced or dismantled. The Nov. 28 event, which was co-sponsored by Be’chol Lashon (In Every Tongue) of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, produced some intriguing answers.

Larry Wong, a native San Franciscan who was born to Chinese parents, is in the process of converting to Judaism. Wong, who attends San Francisco’s Reform Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, said that he’s always felt “right at home” within Jewish culture and traditions. A recent trip to Israel solidified his connection to Judaism, although the paucity of Asians in the country probably led people to believe he was “hired help,” Wong added with a chuckle. Asked about his family’s reaction to his conversion, Wong gave an answer that elicited some titters from the audience. “Both communities are very concerned with money, education and family,” Wong said, adding that the cultural similarities have made the conversion process easier. Wong also displayed a cogent wit throughout the evening, especially when talking about Jewish food. “I love latkes, but I don’t know about adding applesauce and sour cream,” he said. “I think what latkes really need is some good shrimp sauce.”

Other panelists evidently had a more ambiguous relationship to the liminal space occupied by people claiming multiple identities. Rosenstein said when people asked about her background, she deconstructed the question. “I understand their confusion, because to them I don’t look like a ‘Rosenstein.’ What I tell them is that my race is Asian, my ethnicity is Jewish, and my nationality is American,” she said.

Panelist Descartes Li, a Chinese non-Jew raised on Long Island, N.Y., and married to Ashkenazi Jewish panelist Leah Karliner, provoked laughter when he said he was an honorary Jew because “some of my best friends are Jewish.” Li joked that being a psychiatrist bolstered his Jewish “credentials.”

Karliner said the concept of “otherness” really hit home when she visited China with Li. Her skin color was now a distinct minority, something her husband experienced every day in the States. “That was an important lesson for me,” she said. “As a Caucasian Jew, I can ‘pass’ – and sometimes have. But Descartes wears his Asian identity every day in this country.”

Eric Wong, who grew up in San Francisco and was raised by a Chinese-American father and Jewish-American mother, said there were both benefits and detriments to being outside the Jewish “norm.” While noting that growing up he didn’t face any overt prejudice, Wong nonetheless felt a “subconscious” disconnect being a Jew of Asian descent. The questions he faced regarding his identity “chipped away” at his comfort level in the organized Jewish community. On the flip side, he enjoyed “breaking the mold” of what a Jew looks like.

Perhaps the night’s most memorable statement came from audience member Dorothy Jones-Davis, who identifies as an African-American Jew. She wondered if there would come a time when people didn’t regard non-Ashkenazi Jews as a curiosity. “I’m waiting for the time that I tell people my identity and it’s just accepted without question.”


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