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The Newest Jews? Understanding Jewish American and Asian American Marriages

Abstract

This paper investigates how racial, ethnic and religious identities intersect among couples where one spouse is Jewish American of any racial or ethnic descent and one spouse is Asian American of any religion or ethnic descent. While intermarriage is certainly not limited to these kinds of partnerships, there is reason to believe that these partnerships may become increasingly common when investigated along racial, ethnic, and religious dimensions. This study incorporates interviews with 31 intermarried couples residing in the Los Angeles, Orange County, San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and Philadelphia metropolitan areas. In particular, we highlight participants’ discussions of two main subjects: shared values within their partnerships and racial, ethnic, and religious identities of children, if present. Our paper expands the broader sociological literature on intermarriage as well as the specific literatures on intermarriage for Jewish Americans and intermarriage for Asian Americans.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We define race by drawing from Michael Omi and Howard Winant’s (1994) work: “Race is a concept which signifies and symbolizes social conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies” (55).

    We define ethnicity by drawing from Joane Nagel’s (1994) work: “Identity and culture are two of the basic building blocks of ethnicity… Ethnicity is constructed out of the material of language, religion, culture, appearance, ancestry, or regionality” (152–153).

    We define religion by drawing from Emile Durkheim (1912): “Religion is a social institution which is based on interpreting the world through notions of the sacred and the profane. As a social institution, religions operate according to specific sets of practices, beliefs, rituals, and rites which may change throughout time and place.”

  2. 2.

    One of the few texts to address possible cross-over implications, albeit in a limited way, is Maria Root’s (2001) Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage. Mention is also made, again limited, in Nancy Brown Diggs’ (2001) Looking Beyond the Mask: When American Women Marry Japanese Men.

  3. 3.

    We define as Jewish American anyone living in the United States who maintains a connection to Judaism through a religious, cultural, or historical connection.

    We define Asian American as a political and social category which takes into consideration racial and ethnic identification and assignment as Asian. Thus, an Asian American is anyone living in the United States, regardless of generational status, with roots in Asia who experiences some aspect of their lives (political, social, economic, cultural) as an Asian American.

    We utilize both terms underscoring that our interviewees first and foremost self-identify as either Jewish American and/or Asian American.

  4. 4.

    We use the term spouse to include heterosexual couples who are married, homosexual couples who are married (where legal) and homosexual couples who are in committed long-term relationships, due to living in states that do not recognize marriage between same-sex partners.

  5. 5.

    Egon Mayer’s (1985) Love and Tradition, Sylvia Barack Fishman’s (2004) Double or Nothing? Jewish Families and Mixed Marriage and Maria Root’s (2001) Love’s Revolution: Interracial Marriage have attempted to understand intermarriage using qualitative methods. Paul Spickard’s (1989) Mixed Blood: Intermarriage and Ethnic Identity in Twentieth-Century America explores Jewish intermarriage, along with Japanese American and African American intermarriage, from a primarily comparative historical viewpoint. As he points out: “[This] is not sociology, although it deals with a subject that has hitherto belonged primarily to sociologists” (19).

  6. 6.

    We want to underscore that this conceptualization of assimilation functions primarily for immigrants from Western Europe who are racially White. However, Asian Americans, because of their racial status, continue to be seen as unassimilated, “forever foreigners” whose ethnicity is a constant defining factor of their identity.

  7. 7.

    The 2010 report by the Pew Research Center looking at intermarriage in the United States seems to support this prediction. Drawing on an analysis of 2008 Census data, 22% of Black men married that year married outside of their race, compared with just 9% of Black women (Taylor et al. 2010).

  8. 8.

    Here, we investigate the racialized implications of the term Jewish as well as those pertaining to religious and cultural identity. Historically, Jews were not accepted as racially White due to their inferior economic, ethnic, and religious status. Over time, American Jews as a group have largely economically assimilated into the U.S. mainstream and have thereby been able to gain status as White. However, continuing anti-Semitism related to their position as religious and ethnic minorities, while possibly lower than at other moments in the past, has resulted in their not being fully accepted by the U.S. mainstream. See http://www.adl.org/Anti_semitism/poll_as_2009/default.asp and http://www.jpost.com/JewishWorld/JewishNews/Article.aspx?id=172884. Moreover, while many Jews self-identify and are identified as White, many actively resist self-identification as White and choose to identify solely as Jewish. For a more complete discussion of race and Jewish identity, see Karen Brodkin (1998).

  9. 9.

    For example, recent reports from the Berman Institute’s North American Jewish Data Bank, which provide comparative analysis of Jewish intermarriage trends, use this definition. http://www.jewishdatabank.org/FAQs/FAQs_Table2_Intermarriage.pdf.

  10. 10.

    Since 2003, the Census Bureau has incorporated ARIS findings into its Statistical Abstract of the United States.

  11. 11.

    This study, while influential, is not necessarily the final word on the subject. Some researchers have taken issue with the NJPS figures, suggesting they are inaccurate and underestimate the number of Jews in the U.S. For example, a 2002 national telephone survey conducted by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research estimates there are over 6 million Jews in the U.S., substantially more than the 5.2 million indicated in the 2000 NJPS. The authors note these statistics are problematic because many Jews identify ethnically or culturally as Jewish rather than religiously. See Diane Tobin, Gary A. Tobin and Scott Rubin (2005).

  12. 12.

    Bruce A. Phillips (2006) acknowledges the pioneering importance of Mayer’s quantitative work as it relates to recent qualitative investigations regarding intermarriage.

  13. 13.

    The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 up-ended decades of systematic, legalized exclusion of Asians to the U.S. This legislation overturned the Immigration Act of 1924 which excluded Asians from entering the U.S., with the exception of a token few, on the basis of race as it was tied to citizenship. Thus, because Asians were determined to be non-White and, therefore, ineligible for U.S. citizenship on the basis of race, they were excluded from legally entering the country up until the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

  14. 14.

    http://www.census.gov/population/cen2000/phc-t19/tab01.pdf. (accessed March 23, 2010).

  15. 15.

    Couples did not explicitly mention class. However, we acknowledge that markers such as education and occupational mobility are inextricably linked with class. What is interesting is that participants did not talk about these in terms of class but discussed them, instead, as markers of their specific ethnic or cultural heritage.

  16. 16.

    Noel Ignatiev’s (1995) How the Irish Became White, Paul Spickard’s (2007) Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity, and Karen Brodkin’s (1998) How Jews Became White Folks And What That Says About Race in America document the historical processes, often driven by labor market demands, that influence how race is ascribed to European immigrants to the United States.

  17. 17.

    We are currently conducting a research project on the self-identity of children of Jewish-Asian partnerships.

  18. 18.

    Because we are particularly interested in current practice, for purposes of the following discussion we do not include data about the 7 couples who do not have children or about the 6 couples who have grown children who live on their own.

  19. 19.

    The American Religious Identification Survey also tracks religious trends among the Asian American population, noting how between 1990 and 2000 the percentage of those who identify as Christian decreased from 63% to 43% while those who adhere to an “Asian” religion, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, increased from 15% to 28% (9). In addition, this trend may also reflect the fact that our sample had ties to Jewish organizations. Therefore, we can assume some connection to organized Judaism and Jewish life.

  20. 20.

    Beginning in 1983, Reform Judaism, the primary religious identification of 13 of our respondents, expanded access to Judaism by recognizing patrilineal descent.

  21. 21.

    We acknowledge that a more complete study would involve the perspectives of children of these intermarriages. We are currently conducting interviews with a sample of these children and hope to analyze this data in the next 2–5 years.

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Correspondence to Helen K. Kim.

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We dedicate this article to Gary Tobin, Z’’l

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Kim, H.K., Leavitt, N.S. The Newest Jews? Understanding Jewish American and Asian American Marriages. Cont Jewry 32, 135–166 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12397-012-9078-y

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Keywords

  • Intermarriage
  • Race
  • Ethnicity
  • Religion