As a wife-husband team, working on JewAsian together over the past six years, we have shared countless moments, from arranging interview trips around the country to deciding how to focus our investigation to reading each other’s chapter drafts while slurping kimchee boosted chicken soup, to celebrating the completion of another round of page proofs to even bickering over options for the cover. Sometimes our two, very patient, kids, Talia and Ari, seemed utterly confused how we could spend so much time discussing so many aspects of this project.
One of the most special ways we shared the experience was through the constant discussion of the texts that helped us think through what we wanted to study, and how we wanted to present our findings about the families at the heart of this project. While we drew on and talked about hundreds of works over the past several years, throughout the project these six selections in particular have stayed with us. Their ideas and questions are deep in the core of JewAsian.
When we started to look at the literature on intermarriage through the lens of race, we came across virtually nothing. Much had been written on intermarriage, mostly from the perspective of interfaith couples, but very little addressed differences between a Jew and non-Jew that also took into consideration racial difference. One text, In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People, by Diane Tobin, Gary A. Tobin, and Scott Rubin, did catch our eyes. This book opened up an entirely new way of understanding the complexity and fluidity of global Judaism. A must-read for anyone wanting to expand their appreciation for the extraordinary flexibility of Judaism and Jews’ abilities to connect with the populations where they reside. A decade ago the Tobins were able to articulate an exciting, energized and dynamic vision of Jewishness that the American Jewish community is just now beginning to catch up with. The Tobin’s ambitious reimaging of Judaism within a rapidly diversifying nation invited – or, perhaps challenged- us to leap into our own project, and was the guiding spirit all along.
In the same way that In Every Tongue gave us permission to explore the racial dimensions of intermarriage, Still Jewish: A History of Intermarriage in America by Keren R. McGinity also gave us permission to realize an alternative understanding of Jewish intermarriage that countered the assimilation narrative so predominant in the scholarly literature on this topic. Still Jewish is one of the few texts that thoroughly and convincingly discusses the possibility that intermarriage does not necessarily spell doom for the American Jewish population. McGinity deftly utilizes oral histories with intermarried women as well as analyses of community-based literature and mass media representations. It is thorough, inviting and groundbreaking.
Alongside books on Jewish intermarriage, we were also reading more broadly in the discipline of sociology specifically looking for role model texts in terms of methodology and style of writing. While having nothing substantively to do with Jewish intermarriage, Two in a Bed: The Social System of Couple Bed Sharing by Paul C. Rosenblatt, gave us a wonderful example of how social scientists can explore highly personal and even intimate aspects of romantic long-term partnerships in a way that is scholarly, straightforward and delightful to read. Rosenblatt has an extraordinary ability to take what at first seems like an ordinary and perhaps even ignored shared experience and unpack the meanings and importance of that experience in the lives of those families. Moreover, he is able to achieve this using a relatively small sample size by elegantly and carefully mining the interviews, which we tried to emulate in our book. We came across this work in 2007 as JewAsian was taking shape and it was a joyful introduction to the pleasures of studying life together.
Finally, our intention has always been to think about and discuss Jewish intermarriage not as a stand-alone phenomenon but one that is inextricable from larger social and demographic trends regarding marriage, families and racial and ethnic identity. Three books, in particular, have been instrumental for us in forming the umbrella for this larger picture. First, Racial Formation in the United States by Michael Omi and Howard Winant is a classic text, if not the most seminal text, in sociology’s theoretical understanding of race. Omi and Winant trace the formation of race as a concept and reality that continues to serve as a “master category” in the U.S. Necessary reading for any social scientist that clearly demonstrates how race permeates all aspects of our identity and social interactions, even when we think that it does not. Relatedly, Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities by Mary C. Waters is another classic that provides a model for understanding what becoming American means for immigrants who confront a racial hierarchy that is not that of their home country. Waters argues that the importance of understanding the experience of immigrants who are racially Black cannot be divorced from the day-to-day reality of interpersonal racism as well and its interplay with structural racism, both integral to the on-going cycle of cultural adaptations and psychological stressors that shape their life in the U.S. Finally, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics by Lisa Lowe, makes all the right, and needed, connections between identity and social location inside of an ideologically framed demographic narrative. Noah first read this in an Asian-American Studies class when he was in a University of Chicago MA program, and it really expanded his awareness of how complex and problematic the idea of a pan-Asian identity is. Lowe’s ability to demonstrate how legislative decisions and political priorities influence different group’s identities reminds us, nearly two decades after its publication, that identity is inherently shaped by and shapes the context in which it exists. The young JewAsians we interviewed who push back against people who question their authenticity carry forth the spirit of Lowe’s work.
Helen Kiyong Kim is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at Whitman College. Noah Samuel Leavitt is an associate dean of students at Whitman College and has served as the advocacy director for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Their book JewAsian published on 1st July 2016 (Nebraska University Press).
The image featured at the beginning of this post is of Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt’s kitchen cupboard and is copyright of Matt Banderas, Whitman College.