Sheldon Kirshner

The Phenomenon Of Jewish-Asian Marriages

The face of intermarriage in the United States has changed significantly since the Supreme Court, in the 1967 landmark Loving v. Virginia case, ruled that race-based legal restrictions on marriage are unconstitutional.

Since then, mixed marriages between Americans of different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds have risen dramatically, especially in ten states: California, Texas, New York, Florida, Hawaii, Washington, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

American Jews have been affected by this development. By one estimate, 58 percent of Jews who’ve tied the knot since 2005 have married non-Jews.

A fair proportion of their non-Jewish spouses have been of Asian descent. In their informative book, JewAsian: Race, Religion and Identity for America’s Newest Jews (Nebraska University Press), Helen Kiyong Kim and Noah Samuel Leavitt, a married couple, examine this phenomenon.

According to one study cited by the authors, 18 percent of Chinese and Japanese men and women in the United States now marry Jews under the chuppa.

One such union, in particular, comes to mind.

On May 19, 2012, in Palo Alto, California, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg married Priscilla Chan, a graduate of the University of California’s medical school. They first met as undergraduates at Harvard, dated for nine years and lived together for almost two years before marrying.

Woody Allen, the prolific filmmaker, is married to Korean American Soon-Yi Previn. And talk show host Maury Povich and TV reporter Connie Chung are man and wife.

Kim and Leavitt met in 1997 while they were completing MA degrees at the University of Chicago. They were married in 2002 and now have two children. Kim is an associate professor in the department of sociology at Whitman College and her husband is an associate dean of students at the same institution.

Theirs is hardly a unique story.

Two years ago, Angela Warnick Buchdahl was named rabbi at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, one of the most influential Reform shuls in the United States. The synagogue’s first female rabbi in 174 years, Buchdahl was the first Asian American to be ordained as a rabbi. Born in 1972 in Seoul, South Korea, she was the offspring of an Ashkenazi Jewish father and a Korean Buddhist mother.

Brought up in Tacoma, Washington, Buchdahl and her sister were raised Jewish. Kim and Leavitt report that, in general, the Asian spouses of Jews “willingly supported raising their children (in) a Jewish home and providing a Jewish education.”

They add that some non-converted Asian spouses continue to maintain their Christian, Buddhist or Hindu religious beliefs.

Kim and Leavitt  believe there is a “a growing population of Asian American Jews” in the United States. “These Jews include mixed-race individuals born to Asian and non-Asian parents, Asians who were adopted by non-Asian Jewish parents, and Asian converts to Judaism. Also, there is a growing number of Asian American Jews who are born to parents who are Jewish American and Asian American.”

The journalist Nicholas Lemann, in a 1996 Slate magazine article, claimed that Asian Americans had become the “new Jews,” having replaced Jews in “the storied history of meritocracy and advancement” in the United States.” As he wrote, “Asian Americans emphasize ferocity in study (and) win nearly all the top science awards and scholarships.”

Asian Americans, be they Vietnamese, Cambodians or Filipinos, are a model minority. They’re hard-working and family-oriented, representing the best educated and highest income group in the United States.

These are the values most often associated with Jews, Kim and Leavitt write, rounding off their analysis.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal,