Gazing Into the Crystal Ball of Asian-Jewish Relationships

—Helen K. Kim and Noah S. Leavitt

A quick search through the internet uncovers many comments about romantic attachments between Asian-Americans and Jews, ranging from the serious to the silly. One of the most famous examples of this is a series of discussions on Jewlicious, a site for all things Jewish, about whether Asian-American women are among the most frequent visitors to Jewish dating websites like JDate.com. No matter what their tone or perspective, though, these stories demonstrate the strong emotional reactions that such couples evoke.

No recent Asian-Jewish couple besides, perhaps, Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen has gotten as much media scrutiny than Dr. Priscilla Chan and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Gazing into the crystal ball of the Chan-Zuckerberg marriage, one might wonder how these two—and other Asian-Jewish couples—incorporate their backgrounds into their shared daily domestic life. Moreover, it is nearly impossible to ignore the question, “What is going to happen with their kids?”

Intrigued by these kinds of questions, we recently spent a year and a half travelling the country to interview Asian American and Jewish American couples to understand how they describe their relationships. And, in the forthcoming Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation, we spend a chapter focusing on the worldviews and reflections of the second generation Asian-American spouses or partners in sixteen of the Asian-Jewish couples we talked to.

While all couples are unique in many ways, based on what our interviewees shared with us, we’ve made a few predictions about the Chan-Zuckerberg relationship:

  1. Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg will share a fundamental value system focused on high educational achievement, close-knit families, and hard work, which is a version of what scholar Will Herberg called, in 1955, a type of common faith that he defined as “the American way of life.”
  2. Dr. Chan will not incorporate her religion of origin into the household religious or spiritual practice to create a dual-religious, or a syncretic, practice.
  3. If there comes a time when Chan-Zuckerberg kids appear (we think this highly likely, even with Dr. Chan and Mr. Zuckerberg’s very full professional lives—a characteristic they share with many of our interviewees), they will be raised Jewish, and Dr. Chan—regardless of any religious affiliation she grew up with or claimed—will be an equal, if not the, catalyst for this being the primary identity of the kids.
  4. Their kids might have trouble seeing themselves as tracing their identity through Dr. Chan’s family.
  5. In the end, the couples’ differences will be harmonized and the family will endure.

While critics of Jewish intermarriage often fret about the loss of a Jewish identity in a mixed household, we found that Asian-Jewish households often wind up, surprisingly, becoming Jewish.

Are the Asian-American members of these households losing their religion? Maybe.  Are they trying to acquire status in a still-white dominated nation? Perhaps. Or maybe they are trading their own spiritual practices for a harmonious household. To paraphrase one of our interviewees, a Chinese-American physician on the West Coast, “There are only a few million of my wife’s people but there are a billion of mine. Is one more really needed?”

Helen K. Kim is Associate Professor of Sociology at Whitman College, and Noah S. Leavitt is Assistant Dean of Students and a Research Associate in the Department of Sociology at Whitman College. Both are contributing writers to the forthcoming edition of Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation (NYU Press, 2012).

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