Kimchi and Latkes: Growing up Korean and Jewish
I recently ran into a Korean-American friend who I went to high school with at a dinner party in Los Angeles. As we caught up on life, he told me that he fell in love with a Jewish woman, got married and had two beautiful daughters. “They’re like you,” he said with a wide smile. When I was growing up in Orange County, California in the 1980s, with a Korean father who was raised everywhere but Korea, and a Jewish mother, who was born in Dublin, Ireland, there were no kids like me anywhere, until my sister was born.
By the time I was in grad school at UCLA, I began to hear urban myth-like stories from well-meaning people trying to relate to my unusual heritage. There was the tale of a Korean girl who appeared at my friend’s mother’s cousin’s temple in St. Louis and the Jewish guy who was practically Korean because he’d taught English in Seoul and knew his way around the best barbecue joints in L.A.’s Koreatown. And there were a handful of examples in popular culture, namely Connie Chung and Maury Povich, but I didn’t personally relate to any of them. I just wanted to talk to someone, anyone, who had my exact type of background.
But today, thanks to rising Asian-Jewish intermarriage rates and more visibility (Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, most recently), Asian-American and Jewish pairings are far from exotic. It makes sense, especially in cities like Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco where the populations coexist in greater numbers. Generally speaking, Asians and Jews have a lot in common: a strong sense of family and culture, priorities on education and success and troubled wartime histories. And let’s be honest, a Korean mother is basically a Jewish mother with a stronger accent.
After years of thinking that there was no one else with this unique identity, it’s refreshing today when a Jewish girlfriend tells me over lunch that she has a crush on Daniel Dae Kim, or when I hear Peter MacNicol (playing a rabbi) say, “There’s nothing more Jewish than dating an Asian girl,” while guest starring on a recent episode of The Mindy Project. It’s hard to feel like a cultural unicorn when your identity is referred to on a primetime network comedy that stars an Indian-American woman who has made her love of Jewish men known. There’s even a Chinese Jewish blogger whipping up kimchi latkes, and damn, they look good.
In 2012, researchers and real life couple Helen K. Kim and Noah S. Leavitt wrote a paper entitled, “The Newest Jews? Understanding Jewish American and Asian American Marriages,” which focused on 31 intermarried couples throughout the U.S. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the tales of significant struggle or hand wringing by disapproving families were few and far between. In other words: it’s not that big of a deal anymore. And for the record, my parents are still together after 40-plus years.
As I’ve gotten older, I realize that it’s actually kind of fun — and certainly never boring — having multiple ethnic identities. I have a feeling that my high school friend’s daughters will grow up thinking that that being Korean and Jewish isn’t such a big deal. They’ll probably be worried about regular things like school, dating and getting bat mitzvahed. And they won’t be the only ones.