The recent Forward article “Raising Children on Kugel and Kimchi, and as Jews” centered on a new study that found that many families in which one parent is Jewish and the other is Asian are raising their children as Jews. The research was conducted by a married couple of sociologists, Helen Kim, who is of Korean descent, and Noah Leavitt, who is Jewish. Having written a post for The Sisterhood about the stereotypes about Jewish men and Asian women that are found in popular media — a post that garnered quite a few pointed comments — I was eager to get a behind-the-scenes look at Kim and Leavitt’s methodology and findings. The researchers spoke recently with The Sisterhood.
Renee Ghert-Zand: How did you end up choosing the specific 37 couples that ended up being the sample in your study?
Helen Kim: We worked with Be’chol Lashon. They helped us send out a screening survey. There were waves of responses. We recruited people based on where they were in the queue of 250 or so responses as they came in. We also chose couples so there was a wide range of different demographic variables: ethnicity, religious affiliation and religiosity, kids or no kids, age. For instance, we didn’t want to have an overrepresentation of Chinese-Americans.
The age range of your sample was large. What were the major differences between older couples and younger ones?
Kim: Older couples tend to really think about themselves as being an interracial couple. There is racial difference for them. Whereas the younger couples, especially if they haven’t experienced direct racial discrimination …they don’t think of themselves as interracial couples. It’s just “I’m Helen and you’re Noah, and we’re just two different people.”
The young couples do see themselves as a Jewish-and-not-Jewish marriage. It’s not Asian-white, but it might be Jewish-and-Chinese. I think it reflects the times. Younger people want to get away from the narrative of race.
As an Asian-Jewish couple yourselves, did you see yourselves mirrored in what the respondents were telling you?
Leavitt: We’re in the middle of the age range of the couples that we met with. In our own household, we discuss things and see ourselves more in racial terms. We were pretty surprised by the younger folks, for whom this is not part of their working vocabularies.
Did any of the couples report that their extended families were un-accepting of their marriage?
Kim: All the couples were accepted by both sides of the family very seamlessly. It may be that parents and extended family members saw this pairing as a match because of similarities in values and such. They really did not mention a lot of strife, which to us was really quite surprising. We were thinking that there was going to be a lot more of that, because tensions are documented in the literature about Jews in intermarriages, Asians in intermarriages, and about interracial marriage in general. Also, we had heard anecdotally from friends of ours that things were not tension-free in terms of extended family members.
Were you at all surprised to find that the overwhelming majority of these families were raising their children exclusively Jewish by religion?
Leavitt: We were absolutely surprised. All the research we had done before this project about what happens in households where there is Judaism and some other things blended in showed that there’s always some sort of large group of variety in terms of religious practices in the households. We thought we would have findings consistent with that. And that wasn’t the case at all. Neither of us had been expecting this strong effort to practice Judaism and create Jewish households and have kids that can talk about themselves as Jews.
Were the heterosexual couples you spoke with typically composed of a Jewish man and an Asian woman?
Kim: There was a surprising balance in terms of all the initial survey respondents, and the couples we ended up choosing for the study. You would expect predominantly Jewish men married to Asian women, but that was not the case.
Leavitt: It’s important to note that among the couples where a Jewish man was married to an Asian-American female, there were a number of those women who were either born into a Jewish family or converted to Judaism at some point.
Did the couples speak about having to confront stereotypes?
Kim: We know that stereotypes about Jewish men and Asian women are out there, and acknowledge that that is the case, but we did not get any of that from our conversations with the respondents.
The one thing that did emerge … parents talked about their kids being challenged as Jews because of how it is they looked. So if they looked more Asian they were told that they couldn’t really be Jewish because they didn’t look like Jews. Only in one instance an official representative of a synagogue said this to a child, but the rest of the time it was by other kids and by adults.
Leavitt: Some of the parents shared those stories with us remembering back to when their kid experienced something that led them to changing their Jewish communal affiliation — by changing a congregation, or changing a Jewish network or community center. Typically, the comments challenging the child’s connection to Judaism was something that led then to something that they felt more comfortable with.