When you’re Asian and Jewish, you get questions
Rachel Williams celebrates the new year three times: on Dec. 31, on Rosh Hashanah and again on Chinese New Year. That’s just how she rolls as a Jewish Chinese American.
A Palo Alto native, Williams is the daughter of a Chinese mother and Jewish father, making her part of a small but growing biracial subset within the Jewish community.
“I look half Asian, so I am perceived often as being mixed,” says Williams, 24, who lives in San Francisco. “That changes peoples’ reactions to [my] being Jewish. They ask me, ‘What are you?’ It became a fun fact to give them about myself. But it can be frustrating.”
Though intermarriage is common in the Jewish community, Asian-Jewish families remain largely below the radar. Now, a new study sheds light on the lives of adult children from Asian-Jewish unions.
Conducted by Williams, along with her mentors, Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim of Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, the study probed the “identity negotiations” of 22 men and women raised by Asian-Jewish couples. The subjects were ages 18 to 25, and many of them live in the greater Bay Area.
Those surveyed highly value their Jewish roots but also strongly identify as biracial, the researchers found.
“Being mixed race is becoming the new normal in many parts of the country, especially in places with large Jewish populations,” Leavitt says. “And that demographic trend can, in fact, be good for the Jews.”
Leavitt is a research associate in the sociology department at Whitman College, where his wife, Kim, a Korean American, is a professor. Williams, who conducted the interviews, was a student in one of Kim’s classes.
Though small, the sample reflects the diversity within the Asian-Jewish world. Nine respondents claimed Chinese ancestry, 13 Japanese and the rest Indian, Malaysian or Filipino. As for Jewish influences, the majority grew up in Reform households.
One finding of the study was just how predominant a role Jewish culture played in the respondents’ upbringings.
“Overwhelmingly our interviewees indicated that they were raised in homes and communities that actively encouraged and instilled some type of consistent exposure to Judaism and Jewish heritage in and outside the home,” the study’s authors wrote.
That translated into a majority of respondents attending Jewish day schools and synagogues, and celebrating Jewish holidays. Half had a bar or bat mitzvah.
Perhaps partially explaining their enthusiasm for Jewish culture is the fact that intermarriage among Asian Americans is higher than any other ethnic group. A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center found outmarriage among Asian Americans at 31 percent compared with 9 percent for whites and 16 percent for Hispanics.
Kim believes a strong emphasis on education in the Asian American community might in part explain the outmarriage statistic.
“If we recognize that most marriages are between partners of similar educational levels,” Kim notes, “we would expect that intermarriage would be common among Asians and whites [including Jews].”
One of the people surveyed, Sarah Mohtes-Chan, 25, grew up in Davis with her Jewish mother, Chinese father and two sisters (all three sisters participated in the study). She attended Hebrew school and became a bat mitzvah at Bet Haverim, a Reform synagogue in Davis. Mohtes-Chan more strongly identifies with her Jewish side, though she still often gets the question: “What are you?”
“It always comes across innocently,” she says of those queries. “People have been almost infatuated with this game of trying to guess what I am.”
Mohtes-Chan went on to graduate from Wellesley College in Massachusetts and is a kindergarten teacher in Washington, D.C. She attends Jewish services when she can, especially during the High Holy Days, but she reveres her Chinese cultural ancestry as well, even though she doesn’t know much about it.
“My grandmother passed away recently,” Mohtes-Chan adds. “They had a lovely traditional Chinese funeral, and I realized this was the most connected I’ve been to this side of my family. I don’t want to lose touch with that side.”
To that end, her father sent her the traditional lucky red envelope with a few dollars tucked inside for the Chinese New Year last month.
This was not the first study Leavitt and Kim undertook on the subject; several years ago they conducted one on Jewish-Asian couples like them.
Their latest study focuses on the children of those couples, many who took their Jewish roots to heart. “We definitely saw the kids being more Jewish than their parents were,” Leavitt notes.
Kim hopes the study “will emphasize the importance of recognizing that American Jews are multiracial and multiethnic, and live their lives according to these identities.”
Williams adds that the study should “challenge people’s perceptions of what it means to be authentically Jewish. Intermarriage does not always suggest the erosion of a culture. We can have more nuanced views of what an ethnicity or religion is.”