Funny, You Don’t Look Jewish!
At the beginning of this month in New York, a long-awaited national gathering called “Jews of Color National Convening” focused on a complex aspect of American Judaism – the misunderstanding and marginalization of Jews from racial and ethnic backgrounds that don’t code as white. According to the event’s website, the organizers shaped the three day schedule to “empower Jews of Color and provide a space for national strategizing, unprecedented advocacy, and mobilization of Jews of Color and their allies within the American Jewish community.”
Simultaneously, we are also witnessing shifts in popular culture regarding perceptions of Jewishness in America. Of recent note, Julianne Wainstein of Bravo TV’s “The Real Housewives of New York City” has garnered attention, not so much for her wealth but for her varied racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. Born to a white Jewish father and a Japanese mother, Wainstein is religiously observant and is a self-proclaimed “kind of Modern Orthodox” Jew. To borrow a phrase from Paul Golin, Associate Executive Director of Big Tent Judaism, Wainstein is “Jewpanese.”
While we did not participate in the conference in New York nor are we seasoned viewers of “The Real Housewives” series, what we are seeing on the ground in Jewish communities and within popular culture highlights the importance of much more nuanced discussions about the intersections of religion, race and ethnicity within the American Jewish population. We know this because of the numerous conversations we had between 2008-2014 with JewAsian couples and also with millennial children born to these marriages, which clearly showed us that something critical is missing in the larger landscape of contemporary American Jewry. While the couples and individuals we spoke with indicated that Judaism and Jewish identity, rather than disappearing, were thriving in the context of marriages, families and individual upbringings, we also heard stories of JewAsian families and adult children being challenged and sometimes rejected by their communities and communal organizations because of their mixed-race identities. Often times, questions and challenges to Jewish authenticity such as “Funny – you don’t look Jewish!” or “Oh, you mean you’re half Jewish!” were posed to our respondents by Jews and non-Jews alike in racially diverse communities and Jewish spaces such as synagogues and day schools.
Yet, even in light of being challenged for being Jewish because of their mixed-race background, our respondents rejected the notion that their Jewish identity was inferior at the same time that they saw themselves as multiracial and multicultural. Somewhat paradoxically, and quite surprisingly to us, mixed-race JewAsian men and women in their teens and twenties strongly identified as Jewish, often even more so than their parents.
The participants in this month’s convention are right to assert the authenticity of their questioned Judaism. Moreover, the larger mainstream Jewish community needs to listen because the event organizers, and other Jews of Color, will continue to move into national leadership roles, as has been the story of trailblazer Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.
Rabbi Buchdahl, the daughter of a Jewish father and a Korean mother, grew up in Tacoma, Washington, often hearing comments that questioned her Judaism because of her appearance, and has demonstrated extraordinary love of and success in ever-expanding roles of influence in American Jewish life. She made history a few years ago when she became the Senior Rabbi at New York’s Central Synagogue, one of North America’s largest Reform congregations, the first woman and the first Asian-American to do so. Despite a Pew Research Center study in October 2013 that found that more than nine in ten U.S. Jews describe themselves as non-Hispanic whites, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, the President of the Reform Movement, told the Wall Street Journal that Rabbi Buchdahl “is the face of contemporary Judaism.” His words were prescient.
As the rates of intermarriage of all types are expected to increase alongside a rapidly growing multiracial population, what will happen to religious and cultural traditions in light of such broad sweeping changes in the U.S. demographic? Our research offers one glimpse into the future and demonstrates that tradition and transformation can take place simultaneously, both in the spirit of affirming all of one’s different backgrounds. We believe that it also offers guidance to organizations that are deciding whether they should invest energy and resources into reaching out to and embracing Jews who may not look like their congregation members from a decade ago but who will be shaping Judaism in the decades to come.