The Changing Face of the Jewish Community: Meet the Asian-Jewish Intermarrieds
The face of the Jewish community is changing.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of intermarriage. In fact, many readers of Havurah may be Jewish and married to a non-Jew, or know someone who is. Five years ago we ran an article by Tuvya Zaretsky on intermarriage.1 At that time, Tuvya reported his findings about intermarriage and offered practical help for those ministering to intermarried couples.
The trend continues. At one time, the stereotypical Jewish intermarriage was to a white Catholic spouse. Today the intermarried “scene” is much broader, with Jews marrying Asians and African-Americans. Not only do the couples often have to negotiate adjustments because of cultural differences, but the children of such marriages face their own identity issues. An entire organization and web site, Be’chol Lashon (bchollashon.org), is devoted to exploring Jewish diversity of this nature. Or sometimes, Jewish families have chosen to adopt a non-Jewish child.
In this edition of Havurah, we spotlight a unique subset of Jewish intermarriage: Asian-Jewish couples. What we learned from Asian-Jewish couples, however, can be helpful when relating to many other Jewish intermarrieds.
If you are intermarried, whether to an Asian partner or not, we want to encourage you that you are not alone in whatever struggles and challenges you may be encountering. If you know Jewish believers who are intermarried, we can offer help as they navigate the waters of intermarriage, and we can offer pointers to help them in locating a congregation that will allow them both to flourish. If you are witnessing to an intermarried couple who are not believers, we can help you in approaching them with the gospel. (For more information, visit www.jewishgentilecouples.com)
In 1970 the intermarriage rate between Jews and Gentiles stood at approximately 7%. By 1990 the National Jewish Population Survey reported that the rate had climbed to 52%.2</sup One result of this trend has been intermarriage between Asian and Jewish Americans. Though a small percentage of overall Jewish intermarriages, our ministry seems to meet such couples frequently—we even have some serving on the Jews for Jesus staff.
The Challenge of Cultures
Every intermarried family has areas of commonality as well as contrast. We found that Asian-Jewish couples typically cite the following as points of commonality. At the end, we also give one point of contrast. These are areas of cultural navigation that arise either in one’s own intermarried situation or in interfacing with friends who are intermarried.
Ancestry and yichus. Jews call it “heritage” (yichus) while Asians label it “ancestry” or the Zhonghua minzu (the Chinese Nation). Asian cultures pre-date Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; some Chinese joke about parents who insist that their ancestors a thousand generations ago invented the backscratcher. Asians have a rich history filled with wisdom and cultural achievement. This history provides honor and meaning to their identity in a Western culture which emphasizes self over family and personal achievement over community identity. For both partners in an Asian-Jewish marriage, the pull to honor their respective traditions is strong. If there are children, questions arise such as, which history will those children choose? Which will the parents want for them? Will a child want to study Hebrew for her bat mitzvah, or take Mandarin in the public high school? There is a saying, “It’s not what you do, but whom you are related to.” But who will the “whom” be in these families?
Loyalty to community. While the first area has to do with relating to the past, this one is more about the present. Guanxi is a Chinese term that can be roughly translated as a relationship between two or more people which, because of a shared ethnic or national identity, mutually obligates them. The concept is comparable to a Jew’s sense of loyalty to the Jewish community and to family. Jews and Asians are minorities in the West. Both often feel a sense of displacement, as if they are floating in a sea of diaspora. As a result, both feel a need to be faithful to their people. Following Jesus can lead to feelings of betrayal on the part of non-believing family members and a sense of guilt in the believer. And because of this commonality, both partners can perhaps uniquely relate to one another’s struggles in this area.
Education and success. Both Jewish and Asian cultures value education. Learning is the golden key to advancement in a society that places value on earning one’s own place rather than standing on the shoulders of others. For Jews, this emphasis has its roots in the Talmudic academies and the Talmud-Torahs birthed in the shtetl. For Asians the origins lie in the Confucian societal system, under which civil officers were appointed only after passing difficult examinations requiring years of study. The Chinese wryly joke that parents make their children learn violin or piano or both; in Jewish humor, mothers are forever hoping their sons will become doctors or lawyers. This push for education may suggest that in sharing our faith, arguments and evidence will be an important component of what we have to say. Or if we know such a couple and want to hook them up with a church or Messianic congregation, we might even want to consider one where the pastor/leader has a similar background.
Food. Both cultures value food. It is around meals that true connections are made and relationships renewed. An oft-quoted statement is that “the Chinese not only enjoy eating but also believe that good food brings harmony and closeness within a family.”3 Jews perhaps value food not so much for harmony as for health: “Eat—you’re all skin and bones!” While everyone enjoys eating, the high value placed on meals in these cultures suggests that inviting Asian-Jewish couples into the home at family mealtimes may be a good forum for building relationships, whether they are believers or not.
Destiny and bashert. Both cultures, at least traditionally, have had an overwhelming sense that nothing is left to chance. An invisible divine order or destiny governs the events of our lives. Whether it is called fate, bashert,4 or even faith, life has a direction and our world follows universal laws set down by a divine lawgiver. Though many Jews and Asians no longer embrace traditional beliefs, the idea of destiny remains as a residual component of much Jewish and Asian culture. This suggests that in witnessing and discipleship, there is common ground for discussing foundational beliefs.
Emotionally reserved vs. emotionally demonstrative. While Asians and Jews share much in common, the emotional register is not one of them. Jewish people tend to be demonstrative and direct and, to outsiders, even “pushy.” Asians more often hint and suggest, and are not given to displays of emotion. This can have implications for the kind of congregation that the couple will both feel comfortable in, and of course is usually a learning curve for the spouses in their own relationship.
So You Know an Asian-Jewish Family
If you live in a large urban area, chances are that at some point you will encounter an Asian-Jewish couple, whether in your church or congregation, at work or in a school setting. They may be believers in Y’shua, or they may not. How can we as Jewish believers best come alongside such couples in friendship, in witnessing, or in helping them spiritually?
1. If the couple are both believers, you might encourage them to connect with a Messianic Jewish community. This seems to be a key factor in influencing the Jewish component of the family’s identity, whether it is a congregation or a more informal setting. Philip and Karen Cheng met at Calvary Baptist Church in New York City. They chose to identify as a Jewish family and ended up worshiping at -Messianic congregation Kehilat Y’shua. “My Lord is Jewish. And the Jews are God’s chosen people. So why not identify with His people?” Philip says. Their son Daniel had his bar mitzvah at Kehilat Y’shua.5 For the family of one of the writers of this article (Stan Meyer—he is Jewish, his wife Gentile, with an adopted Chinese daughter, Carrie-Fu), being able to participate in a Messianic Jewish community has reinforced their Jewish identity and that of their child. In contrast, without a similar Jewish community in Wichita, Kansas, the children of Bob and Teresa Arensberg identify more with the Chinese component of their background—despite the fact that Bob has extensive contact with his Jewish family in Seattle. (Find the stories of all these couples here)
2. Just as Jewish culture is not monolithic, so there is diversity within Asian culture. One implication is that when we share our faith with nonbelieving Asian-Jewish couples, we need to ask how each spouse relates to the gospel. For instance, was the Asian spouse exposed to the gospel earlier in life (as in the cases of Philip Cheng and Teresa Arensberg)? Or was the spouse indoctrinated into an atheist ideology, perhaps in mainland China or Vietnam? Maybe the Asian partner rebelled against Christianity at some point and has objections to faith in Jesus that are significantly different from the objections of the Jewish spouse. Or perhaps she was raised in the Buddhist or Shinto religion with no familiarity with Christianity altogether and therefore no thoughts on the gospel at all. While a Jewish person may grapple with an upbringing that taught him that Jewish identity is contrary to faith in Y’shua, an unbelieving Asian partner will have entirely different sets of issues and objections. On the other hand, an Asian family member raised in a traditional Buddhist household who considers Jesus may feel the same disloyalty to her community that a Jewish person often experiences.
As with anyone, the only way to find out which of the above scenarios reflects the reality is to befriend the couple and get to know them. It’s good to know what someone’s questions are before offering the gospel as the answer.
3. Intermarried families in a Messianic Jewish community may wish to have a “pluriform” identity—that is, not only Jewish but with an additional component. What is appropriate for a couple that is Jewish on both sides might not be optimal for an intermarried couple. In fact, the family should be encouraged to also be connected to the Asian side (or Italian, African-American, etc.). Stan Meyer interviewed several Asian-Jewish couples for this article; what he found was that none of the families he spoke with chose to identify as 100% Jewish or 100% Asian. Those who maintained a strong Jewish identity still desired to impart to their children their Asian heritage. Even where the children received a bar or bat mitzvah, both the parents and the children continued to value the ancestry and heritage of both sides. This means that while it can be a good thing to invite intermarried friends to a Messianic congregation to help impart some sense of Jewish identity, we also need to provide “space” for the non-Jewish component of the family. It is good if there is some group where they can network with other similar families.
4. The children of intermarried couples will have their own concerns and issues. Children of mixed marriages often go through a cultural balancing act, or find their way into a fusion of both cultures into something new. They will need a context to flesh out who they are; and yes, they are going to be different. A Messianic Jewish community may affirm the Jewish component, but it may take the home or school to address the other culture.
When it comes to intermarriage and identity, each family will need to carve out its own niche. Some may identify mostly as Jewish, others mostly as Asian, Italian, and so forth—though in our experience it is usually a mix. The children, on the other hand, will also discover their own identity as the product of a mixed marriage.
Both for the sake of the Jewish side and the non-Jewish side of the family, remember that ethnicity is a gift from God. That fact makes it worth preserving. God told Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:2-3). Y’shua was one of Abraham’s descendants and He came to bless all nations, Jewish, Chinese, Korean or Irish. Therefore, the Asian member of the household—indeed, the non-Jewish member of any intermarried family—represents one of those nations that can receive a blessing from God through the Jewish people.
This is something we can offer to intermarried couples in a way that the larger Jewish community cannot. The face of the Jewish community is changing. But what hasn’t changed is that all can receive a common blessing and a common identity that transcends cultural and ethnic boundaries—through faith in Y’shua, the Messiah for all people.
Stan Meyer lives in Los Angeles where he and his wife Holly serve on staff with Jews for Jesus. Their adopted daughter Carrie-Fu turned six in January 2010. Aaron Abramson, Jews for Jesus’ minister-at-large, and Rich Robinson, editor of Havurah, also contributed to this article.
Has this article resonated with your own situation in any way? Leave a comment below or send us an email and share your experiences with us.
- “Jewish-Gentile Couples: Becoming one Flesh and One Spirit,” www.jewsforjesus.org/publications/havurah/8_1/jgcouples
- See www.jewishdatabank.org
- The Jewish culture’s notion of fate, as in, “It was bashert that you and I met!”
- Parallel to this, Dan and Wei Silverman are not believers in Y’shua, but found their identity within
a Los Angeles-area synagogue. With most of her own extended family still in China or
scattered, Wei gravitated to the community offered within the synagogue.
Stan Meyer is a missionary at the Phoenix branch of Jews for Jesus. Stan received his theological training at Fuller Theological Seminary. Stan and his late wife adopted their daughter, Carrie-Fu, from China in 2005. Stan married Jacqui Hops, a Jewish believer in Jesus, in August 2014.