Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim with their son Ari. (Photo courtesy of the Kim/Leavitt Family)

Cultural relations

Two alumni study Asian-Jewish intermarriages like their own.

Growing up, Helen Kim, AM’97, was one of very few Asian children in her predominantly white Bay Area town. Her Korean family, she says, wanted her to assimilate as much as possible. The first people in their respective families to immigrate to the United States, her parents did not speak Korean in their American home. Says Kim, “We didn’t do very much of anything that was culturally Korean.”

She attended an Episcopal school that had a lot of Jewish students. “I felt a connection with my Jewish classmates,” she says, “because, to a great extent, they were outsiders” too:  “Even though I would say that we all felt welcomed by the school, we were not Christian.” Throughout her life, she’d seriously dated several Jewish men—and ultimately married one.

Kim’s story is similar to what she and her husband, Noah Leavitt, AM’97—raised in a Reform Jewish household in upstate New York—have found in their research on Asian-Jewish intermarriage. Now both at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, the couple started to investigate the topic in part to better understand their own relationship, as well as to try to fill a gap in sociological literature (Kim is an associate professor of sociology and Leavitt is the assistant dean for student engagement).

Statistics show a higher rate of intermarriage between Asians and whites, compared to Asians and any other ethnic group—for example, the 2000 US Census showed that intermarriages between white men and Asian women surpassed intermarriages between white men and women of any other ethnicity. But Leavitt and Kim, who earned a JD and PhD, respectively, at the University of Michigan saw a dearth of studies on ethnically intermarried couples that factored in religious backgrounds.

Over a year and a half, Kim and Leavitt interviewed 31 Asian-Jewish couples who represented a diverse sample across characteristics including ethnic background and presence of children. They selected the participants from around 250 couples who took an online survey on how ethnicity, race, and religion intersect in their daily lives. The survey was circulated to Jewish organizations in several metropolitan areas, from congregations to interfaith networks, through the Institute for Jewish and Community Research, a San Francisco–based think tank; the researchers also distributed surveys to couples they knew personally and asked them to pass it on.

While many earlier studies have explored interfaith marriage and intermarriage understood as racial difference, says Leavitt, their “exploratory” study expands on that sociological literature—specifically on intermarriage for Jewish Americans and for Asian Americans—by exploring their ethnic, cultural, and religious interactions. Published in the February 2012 Contemporary Jewry, their research found that the Asian American partners who had not been born into a Jewish household “often said that from a values perspective”—an emphasis on education, close-knit families, and hard work—“they kind of got Judaism,” says Leavitt.

Regardless of any cultural or ethnic differences or similarities, Kim says, “I think there’s something on an individual level for these couples that makes them fall in love with each other.” For Kim and Leavitt, when they met during their year in the Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences, the attraction didn’t spark from their ethnic and religious identities, Kim says. “What really brought us together were some personal life hardships. Both of our fathers had passed away very unexpectedly when we were young.”

Their shared research has continued to bring them together. For “The Newest Jews? Understanding Jewish American and Asian American Marriages,” Kim and Leavitt looked at a diversity of people in such marriages, from Chinese women to reform Jewish men, to conservative Jewish women to Japanese American men, to gay Asians and Jews. Most of the Jews were from Eastern Europe, and the Asians’ ethnic origins included Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, and Korean. Some of the Asian Americans were raised Jewish or converted to Judaism; on the white Jewish side, there was a range of religious observance.

The stereotype in Asian-Jewish couples, says Kim, is that the Asian American is female and the Jewish American is male. But in the group who took Kim and Leavitt’s survey, there were just as many couples in which the Asian American partner was male and the Jewish partner was white and female.

Over the course of the taped interviews, Kim and Leavitt found that the couples’ shared values, down to the importance of food in the respective cultures, seemed to reduce conflict. Also, while nearly every couple they interviewed had decided to raise their children Jewish, they tried to instill both culturally Jewish and Asian identities in their children, whether incorporating kosher practices in the home or celebrating a traditional Chinese holiday as a family. 

While Leavitt focuses on his post as dean, Kim has been working with a research assistant to interview 18–35-year-old multiracial and multireligious offspring about how they grew up and about how their Asian-Jewish family works. Many, Kim has noticed, identify as white or multiracial instead of Asian. “I think they are really trying to distance themselves from a stigma that still persists,” Kim says, that is wrapped up in the idea of being “foreign.”

Kim and Leavitt are taking the next generation’s responses to heart. In fact, they’re using them for guidance in raising their own children, four-year-old Ari and one-year-old Talia, whom the couple is raising as religiously and culturally Jewish. But they want to make sure that the children understand their Korean background, even if Kim herself doesn’t know much about it. Once Ari and Talia get a bit older, she imagines the family taking Korean language lessons, participating in holidays, and paying respects to the deceased in a traditional way. In Kim’s family, the most recent death was her father’s. “I haven’t participated in a ceremonial celebration of his passing in a number of years. I can imagine starting to do that as a family.”