Investigating Jewish-Asian identity

Helen Kiyoung Kim, associate professor of sociology. and Noah Samuel Leavitt, associate dean of students, Whitman College, Washington. |

Helen Kiyoung Kim, associate professor of sociology. and Noah Samuel Leavitt, associate dean of students, Whitman College, Washington. |

What does it mean to be JewAsian? In challenging dominant narratives of intermarriage, sociologists and married Jewish-Asian couple Helen Kiyoung Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt explore the ways in which they, their children and many Jewish-Asian Americans navigate this crossroads of race, religion and ethnicity.

Our work helps readers to understand how what might at first look like a long list of ‘differences’ can in fact, for the people involved, be understood as similarities,” says Leavitt.

On November 28, Kim and Leavitt will be discussing their research at a panel on cultural intersections, during the Jewish Book Festival at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.

For Kim, a Korean American associate professor of sociology, and Leavitt, a Jewish American associate dean of students at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington, raising their two curious, young children has brought to the forefront an ongoing conundrum of comprehending their families’ mixed-race and religious identities.

But Kim and Leavitt are not alone – what seemed like an unlikely coupling when they first started dating in 1997 is now part of a rising trend of Jewish-Asian marriages across America.

Against the backdrop of recent, prolific Jewish-Asian unions like that of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and pediatrician Priscilla Chan, Kim and Leavitt noticed a gap in academic literature on these partnerships, initiating a seven-year qualitative examination of intermarriages between Jewish Americans and Asian Americans.

Their recent publication, JewAsian: Race, Religion, and Identity for America’s Newest Jews, is an unprecedented book-length analysis on the subject.

A personal story behind the pedagogy

Launched amidst Kim’s pregnancy with the couple’s first child, Kim and Leavitt’s research delved into personal curiosities about their future family.

The two sociologists saw their relationship flourish through common values, like academic performance and work ethic, between their seemingly dissimilar Asian and Jewish backgrounds and eventually got married in 2002.

However, in spite of her keenness to nurture practicing Jewish children and conversion to Judaism last December, Kim, a child of Korean immigrant parents, has not always readily seen herself reflected within the Jewish community at large.

In their book, Kim and Leavitt describe a past conversation in which their son, Ari, eight, argues that Kim cannot be simultaneously Korean and Jewish, as Kim’s parents did not practice Judaism.

Likewise, Kim’s students often express surprise in learning that her children are Jewish.

Leavitt says, “I’ve really had my eyes opened to how my whiteness allows me to avoid being challenged as not being ‘authentically’ Jewish, both in Jewish spaces as well as in society more generally.”

Countering long-held beliefs on Jewish intermarriage

In examining how other Jewish-Asian families negotiate their multi-ethnic and interfaith identities, the couple highlights the experiences of an evolving community of Jews of colour amidst America’s changing demographics.

Kim and Leavitt interviewed 68 Jewish-Asian couples and 39 youth aged 18 to 26 born to Jewish-Asian marriages.

To their surprise, the testimonies contradicted the existing discourse that Jewish intermarriage leads to diminishing Jewish self-identification.

Many mentioned regular observance of the Sabbath, synagogue attendance, as well as children’s participation at Hebrew school.

“Judaism and Jewish identity were being instilled in a marriage and family life in very traditionally religious Jewish ways,” Leavitt comments.

Moreover, most mixed-race youth interviewees defined themselves more deeply by their Jewish faith than their Asian heritage. Kim explains that without a similar text like the Torah, Asian cultural practices are often more ambiguous and cumbersome to pass on compared to Jewish practices.

“The main takeaway was making everything available to them – learning, education and resources that validate their histories and heritages – so they can pick, choose, and figure out who they are and what they want to be,” Kim says.

Jewish Book Festival in Vancouver

From Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, the Jewish Book Festival brings together celebrated Canadian, American and Israeli writers.

Leavitt says, “We are excited to meet and talk to people in Vancouver for whom the book has relevance but from whom we can learn regarding a different cultural context and racial landscape.”

For more information about the Jewish Book Festival, visit