By Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz
To be Jewish means to seek to learn from everyone. We can learn much about ourselves from observing and respecting other cultures. This is something I have been pondering about for some time: that the Jewish community, writ large, is ignoring a critical population amongst us: the Asian-American community. We also have much to offer from our own tradition, but we grow more as humans when we learn from other cultures that, while superficially different, have their own inspirational philosophies of their own to share. To prosper in the interconnected milieu we call the post-modern, we need to develop genuine partnerships that go beyond stereotype, that go to the crux of what it means to uphold the dignity of every human being.
In the United States Asian Americans are now among the fastest-growing minority groups, overtaking Latinos in recent years as the largest stream of new immigrants. Indeed, Asian Americans now make up nearly 6 percent (or 18.2 million), of the American population.
Furthermore, as this population grows, the American Jewish community continues to become intertwined with the Asian-American community. Most prominently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s marriage to Priscilla Chan was certainly not the first time a Jewish man has married a woman of Asian descent. Amy Chua, author of Ballad of the Tiger Mother, which lays out her advocacy of a strict type of discipline of children, also has a Jewish husband). It has been suggested that “The proportion of intermarriages of American Jews and Asian-Americans is growing.” And indeed, these marriages have been embraced by some due to the perceived shared commitments of “tight-knit families, hard work, and educational advancement.”
Likewise, the intertwining of cultures may lead to conversion. Hard data on how many Asian-Americans convert to Judaism is scant as there have only been a few studies on Jewish-Asian marriages. In a study published nearly two decades ago, Professors Colleen Fong (California State University) and Judy Young (University of California, Santa Cruz) interviewed Asian men and women about their marriage partners and compared this with data extrapolated from other studies. They found that 18 percent of Chinese and Japanese interviewees had Jewish spouses:
…there is a propensity for our interviewees to meet and date Jews in college or in their professional fields and marry them … most often they mentioned how both cultures valued strong family ties and educational achievement. Interviewees also described their Jewish spouses as having a sense of “ethnic tradition” and an immigrant legacy found lacking in non-Jewish whites they had known or dated.
Jewish identity tends to be strengthened in these marriages because synagogues, Jewish schools, and community centers can bolster Jewish identity, while Asian-Americans have far fewer institutional resources to reinforce their cultural identity.
There may be another, hidden reason for the cultural affinity of Jews to Asian cultures, Chinese in particular. In the United States, Chinese communities (especially those on the West coast) were subjected to intimidation, even murder, in a manner that was disturbingly reminiscent of the pogroms inflicted on Jews in Eastern Europe. In 1871, seventeen Chinese residents of Los Angeles were lynched by mobs of whites in one of the largest mass lynching in American history. Similar violence peaked in 1885-1886, when many Chinese communities were driven out and Asian population centers were attacked, with many people murdered in large numbers.
Shamefully, Congress supported such nativist racism, singling out the Chinese as the only group in American history specifically excluded from immigration, starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In a series of laws, Chinese laborers – and then all Chinese people – were barred from entering the United States until 1943. Chinese Americans had to carry a certificate proving that they were in the country legally, and if they were apprehended without this, they could be deported. In addition, any Chinese American who left the United States could be barred from reentry. Even after repeal of the Exclusion Act, only 105 Chinese immigrants were permitted annually at first, even though China was an ally in the war against Japan.
Further, the internment camps of World War II, where Americans of Japanese descent were deported from their own homes unlawfully and made to live in squalid conditions for fear of “collaboration” with the Japanese Army is another blot in American history, a stain unbecoming of the ideas of liberty and due process that are supposed to protect the individual.
There are, of course, Jews of Asian origin, and they can help build bridge that these communities need to deepen the relationships between respective cultures. Angela W. Buchdahl is currently the Senior Rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York City, one of the most prominent Reform congregations in the country, after having served as its chief cantor. She is the first Asian American to be ordained as a rabbi. Her father was Jewish but her mother was a Korean Buddhist. Rabbi Buchdahl chose Judaism and studied to be a cantor and then a rabbi, and while she serves a Reform congregation, she also studied in Conservative and Orthodox institutions. Aside from Rabbi Buchdahl, the gamut of Asian Jews runs from professionals to reports of a burgeoning LGBT Asian Jewish population in the synagogues of San Francisco.
When we take the effort to find meaningful partnerships, we should rush to begin a dialogue. No matter how many challenges there might be, most are of an external variety. The Jewish sages queried long ago “Who is wise?” They answered, “One who learns from every person.” To keep our intellectual quests perpetual, we must seek the rich offerings of other cultures, so that we may become more whole as fully-formed citizens of the world. Most crucially, to uphold our sacred duty to be ambassadors for global social justice, we must build strong partnerships with other communities so that we can work to repair the world in solidarity and in friendship.
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of eight books on Jewish ethics.