The couple started working on the book, JewAsian: Race, Religion and Identity for America’s Newest Jews, about eight years ago, inspired by their own partnership.
Next week, the National Museum of American Jewish History hosts a Café Conver-sation titled “America’s Newest Jews” with authors Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt.
The married couple, both of whom teach at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash., just published a book called JewAsian: Race, Religion and Identity for America’s Newest Jews.
Kim and Leavitt are well qualified to comment on Jewish-Asian identity.
Aside from the example they provide as a living case study, sociology professor Kim has been published in the Journal of Jewish Identities and Forward, as well as several anthologies. Leavitt, an associate dean, served as the advocacy director for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and has published in the International Herald Tribune, Slate, Contemporary Jewry and Forward.
Their book, which was published by the University of Nebraska Press, has already been featured in The New York Times and was listed in Amazon’s Hot New Releases Top 10 in three categories: Asian-American Studies, Jew-ish History and Sociology of Marriage and Family.
The couple started working on the book about eight years ago, inspired by their own partnership.
“So much of writing the book was thinking about how we were going to create our own family in terms of parenting and marriage,” Leavitt said. “As we were getting the research off the ground, we were also welcoming our first child to the world, and the book has, in some ways, grown up with our son and daughter.”
Yet while personal experience guided them in terms of subject matter, their approach to the topic is as exacting and objective as one might expect from two academics.
Rather than start the book with an explanation of the dynamics in their own marriage, they chose to begin by considering the union of a rather more famous Jewish-Asian couple: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan.
“We started the book with the example of Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan primarily because there was so much discussion about this couple in the popular media and the blogosphere,” Kim said. “In this discussion, we saw lots of aspects of the debate regarding intermarriage, specifically attention to Zuckerberg and Chan’s racial and religious differences, emerge quite heavily.”
The high-profile couple also represents “a rapidly growing demographic reality in the United States,” wrote Kim and Leavitt, “that of intermarriage between individuals of different racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds.” They cite data from the 2010 U.S. census that illustrates the growing popularity of interracial and interethnic marriages: “Approximately 15 percent of all new marriages in the United States in 2010 were between spouses of different racial or ethnic backgrounds” — a figure that more than doubled between 1980 and 2010.
Given such data, the book poses three research questions:
First, how do religion, race and ethnicity interact in the everyday lives of Jewish Americans and Asian Americans who are partnered with one another?
Second, how do Jewish Americans and Asian Americans think about their multiple identities in light of being partnered with one another?
Third, how do the adult children of intermarriages between Jewish Americans and Asian Americans think about and negotiate their racial, ethnic and religious identities?
In pursuing the answers, the couple say they were most surprised by how traditionally Jewish the families and millennial children were.
“These families and adult children were not the lox and bagel types — they were either creating or had grown up in homes and communities with a variety of Jewish religious practices and education. There was great energy around their Jewishness,” Kim said.
“We were also surprised at how comfortable millennial adult children were able to effectively counter people’s challenges to their Jewish identity,” Leavitt said. “This undoubtedly has something to do with a confidence in their own Judaism, as well as their multiracial and multiethnic identities.”
Though many of the families they interviewed were on the West Coast, a number of them also came from the Phila-delphia area.
“It was helpful to be able to include voices from the East Coast Jewish community as well,” said Kim, “which has different and distinct connections to the Holocaust and to race relations.”
The Philadelphia event is something of a homecoming for the couple: Leavitt is a graduate of Haverford College and has family here. And there is a photo of Leavitt, Kim and their son (their daughter was born after the picture was taken) in NMAJH’s permanent collection, in the section about the future of Judaism. For that reason, Leavitt said, the NMAJH appearance “will be especially poignant. We appreciate the seriousness with which an institution like NMAJH takes and seeks to understand these kinds of demographic changes taking place in the American Jewish community.”
The Café Conversation with Kim and Leavitt is on July 13 at 6 p.m. Pre-registration is not required; the event is included in the museum’s pay-what-you-wish admission. For directions and more information, call 215-923-3811.
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