ark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Maury Povich and Connie Chung, George Soros and Tamiko Bolton—these cross-cultural unions are enough to make you think that marriage between Asians and Jews is a trend. There is in fact some statistical evidence to suggest that Asian-Jewish couples make up a disproportionate percentage of the recently intermarried. A study in the 1990s by California State University professor Colleen Fung and Judy Young of the University of California found that Jews made up 18 percent of the white spouses chosen by East Asians (Chinese or Japanese) in America. Given the small number of Jews and East Asians in the general population, this is a surprisingly high percentage.
The most obvious way to account for this curious statistic is to note that Jews and East Asians often occupy a similar socioeconomic status in America and so their paths probably cross fairly often. Whether at elite colleges, in Silicon Valley, or on the Upper West Side, the people we marry tend to be those we work with, go to school with, and live near. Marriage is largely about opportunity.
But there is more to it than that. In their new book, JewAsian, husband and wife Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt, both professors at Whitman College, interview a number of these mixed couples and find that the husbands and wives also had a great cultural affinity connecting them. “Overwhelmingly, respondents emphasized similarities between the value systems they were brought up with and those of their partners,” the authors write. “More specifically, respondents discussed these values in distinctly ethnic or cultural terms, such as ‘Jewish values,’ ‘Chinese values,’ or ‘Asian values.’ . . . Respondents who spoke about these commonalities described an emphasis on tight-knit families, hard work, and educational advancement as central components of Jewish and Asian ethnic values.”
It is a little hard to assess what they mean by tight-knit families. Anyone who has seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding—or The Godfather, for that matter—knows that family closeness is hardly the exclusive province of any particular ethnic group.
As for hard work and educational advancement, we should take a detour and turn to one of the most prominent Asian-Jewish couples in the country—Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. Chua is more commonly known as the Tiger Mom, who explained in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (2011) how she raised her daughters in the prototypical Chinese way. In Chua and Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (2014), the authors argued that Jews and Asians share a sense of superiority, a sense of insecurity, and an emphasis on impulse control. While American culture teaches “a message of self-acceptance and living in the moment,” they write, these ethnic groups teach their children something entirely different. For Jews, their sense of superiority has its roots in the theological understanding of chosenness. For the Chinese, their superiority is rooted in history. “Today, Chinese kids—in American as in the rest of the world—are typically raised on a diet of stories about how Chinese civilization is the oldest and most magnificent in world history,” Chua and Rubenfeld write.
Jewish insecurity, in this analysis, comes from millennia of persecution. According to Chua and Rubenfeld, Chinese insecurity comes in part from the way they are treated in America. “Like so many newcomers to America, Chinese immigrants often experience ‘the twin burdens of foreignness and marginalization,’” they write. “They’re the ones with the funny accents and wrong clothes, who don’t know where anything is or how things work.” Chinese resentment over the larger culture’s failure to recognizing their greatness seems to fuel the desire to work harder. But while there are still plenty of Tiger Moms out there shaming their children for anything less than perfect grades, their Jewish counterparts are mostly a thing of the past. Indeed, Chua and Rubenfeld suggest that Jews seem to be falling down particularly on the job of impulse control when it comes to child-rearing.
How, then, might these similarities and differences manifest in the children of Jewish-Asian marriage? Interestingly, Kim and Leavitt report: “Almost uniformly the children of these intermarriages are being raised as Jews. In numerous ways Jewish and non-Jewish spouses identify their children as Jewish. Moreover they reported that their children self-identify as Jewish.” Not only do the parents celebrate major holidays at home, send their children to Jewish schools, join synagogues, and help their children become a bar or bat-mitzvah, but some are keeping kosher and others are saying blessings before daily meals.
The authors write that “overall these families expressed high degrees of satisfaction with and inclusion in the Jewish life they created for their families both inside and outside their homes.” Some of this may be due to the fact that many of the Asian respondents grew up with little or no religion. This means that children aren’t hearing mixed religious messages at home. (There were a few self-identified Christians among the Asians, but they were not raised particularly religious.)
Kim and Leavitt are concerned by the fact that these families seem to be doing less to emphasize Asian values. So they speculate: “Jewish American and Asian American couples may choose to instill Judaism in their children as a way of trading their minority racial status as Asian or racially ambiguous for a religious identity that is closely associated with whiteness in the United States.” This, of course, is complete academic rubbish. The most likely explanation is that it’s more difficult to pass down culture from one generation to another than to pass down religion. You can try to teach children to appreciate language or food or history. But it is religion that tends to last because it involves holy rituals that can be practiced regularly and together.
Kim and Leavitt, however, have a specific agenda. They are worried that the notion of a model minority is an invidious stereotype. “This narrative,” they write, “continues to support the ‘bootstraps’ model of advancement while also silencing not only Asian Americans who may not fit this model of advancement but also other racial and ethnic groups who may also hold the same values but may not be able to succeed because of institutional and racial advancement.” Chua and Rubenfeld, however, have already torn that fear to shreds by showing that Nigerians have much better outcomes in America than American-born blacks even though they would presumably suffer the same kinds of institutional discrimination—because of the values with which they are raised.
The aim of Kim and Leavitt in studying these marriages is not to figure out why they occur and why they seem to have less tension than other intermarriages with regard to child-rearing. Instead, they wonder whether “both groups might eventually be permitted to see themselves differently, freed from the constraints of the model minority narratives that bind…them.” For the sake of their children and the future of America, let’s hope not.