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Parenting’s Asian-Jewish Connection

• April 08, 2011 • 4:00 AM

The hubbub over the Tiger Mom model presented in a recent best-seller left some recalling the stereotype of the Jewish mother. But what happens when couples are Asian and Jewish?

Asian-Jewish couples share remarkably similar values — but they’re not rearing their children like Tiger Mother Amy Chua, a new study reports.

Noah Leavitt and Helen Kim — a married couple and both sociologists at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. — interviewed 37 Asian-Jewish couples over two years. The families lived in Northern and Southern California, Philadelphia and New York City. They included Asian-American men married to Jewish women and Jewish men married to Asian-American women, as well as straight and gay couples. Their ages ranged from 20s to 70s; some were parents and others childless. While most of the Jews were Ashkenazi (of Eastern European origin), the Asians’ origins were Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Southeast and South Asian.

Despite their ethnic diversity, all the couples shared a set of core values including respect for hard work, community-mindedness, and “an incredible commitment to the upbringing of their kids, especially their education,” said Leavitt. The participants also emphasized their common feelings for family.

“The Jewish culture and the Chinese culture are very family-oriented,” a Chinese-American man married to a Jewish woman told the researchers. “When I came into [my wife's] family, it was kind of, I want to say, comforting.”

Leavitt and Kim heard no stories about mothers driving their children ruthlessly toward worldly accomplishment. “None of the parenting sounded to us anything like what’s depicted in Amy Chua’s book,” says Leavitt.

Nearly every couple described their aligned values as a congruence of Jewish and Asian traditions. Some referred to specific tenets of Judaism, Buddhism or Confucianism.

Most of the couples appreciated each others’ humor, adds Kim. “They were quite funny with each other and with us, especially about stereotypes about their identities,” she says. The Jewish half of one couple joked that a traditional Jewish blessing meant, “People try to kill us, we survived but celebrate – let’s EAT!” The husband cited the Chinese saying, “Thank goodness we’re alive. But celebrate, let’s eat!

“It always ends up, ‘Let’s eat!’” he laughed

To be sure, the couples were not randomly selected. Leavitt and Kim chose them from approx 300 people who responded to an online survey distributed through a national database of Jewish organizations, through multiracial and interfaith networks and through newspapers. So while the overwhelming majority of the couples were happy, the study didn’t prove that Asian-Jewish households are uniformly harmonious. It’s easy to imagine, for example, that couples struggling with conflicts would not respond to such a survey. And all those interviewed were highly educated professionals or in grad school.

Surprisingly, while some in the Jewish community fear that intermarriage is weakening Jewish identity in United States, this study found an opposite effect. Overwhelmingly, couples with children were raising them Jewish. “When we asked ‘Do your kids express Jewishness?’ we got a laundry list,” says Leavitt. “Over and over again we saw Jewish- Asian couples putting incredible thought and energy into helping children become Jewish.”

Leavitt, who is Jewish, and Kim, a Korean-American, have a 2 1/2-year-old son. The couples they studied shared so much closeness, love, trust and family support that after finishing the interviews, says Leavitt, “Helen and I felt more loving toward each other.”

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Kathy Seal
Kathy Seal is a journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Carnegie Reporter. Co-author of two books — Motivated Minds: Raising Children to Love Learning (Holt, 2001) and Pressured Parents, Stressed-Out Kids (Prometheus, 2008 ) — she speaks frequently at schools on motivating children to learn. She is now at work on a memoir.

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