The Tiger Mom and Ethnic Identity: The Jewish Angle
I recently attended an interesting panel on Jewish secularism put on by the Posen Foundation. The speakers were historian David Biale and philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein. In her talk, Goldstein insisted that Jewish secularism was alive and well, judging by all the book competitions she had been asked to judge, requiring her to examine numerous volumes which served as examples of the subject. In the Q and A, however, I asked about what this all means to the Jewish demographic future, noting: “Secular Jews are good at producing books, but not so good at producing children.”
This leads me to a belated follow-up to my previous post on America’s most infamous mother, Amy Chua (pictured left), and the discussion in her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about the constructed nature of ethnic identity, as well as what Chua’s family tells us about intermarriage and Jewish demography.
Lots of Jews have responded to Chua, chiming in with references to the stereotypical Jewish mother, as featured in novels such as Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint (my favourite book of all time). There’s this little bit in The New Yorker. Ayelet Waldman, who famously claimed that she loves her husband, novelist Michael Chabon, more than her children, thus rendering her the exact opposite of the crude stereotype (the caricature of the Jewish mother dotes on her children and castrates her husband), nonetheless defended Jewish mothering in The Wall Street Journal, the same publication that printed the excerpt from Chua’s book that caused all the controversy. Wendy Sachs takes a more benign view of the Jewish mother than Roth does in her comparison. The best of these pieces, believe it or not, is by neoconservative royalty John Podhoretz in The New York Post, who closes his commentary with this perceptive analysis:
My guess is that [Chua’s] book gives us a portrait of Chinese tradition that is ultimately about as deep as the “ancient Chinese secret” that was revealed, in that classic 1970s commercial, to be Calgon detergent.
J-Pod isn’t completely right here: I think Chinese and Asian parents more broadly have in general a good parenting method that produces hard-working and successful children. But he is right to point to the constructed, artificial nature of Chua’s Chinese identity, and indeed, of ethnic identity in general.
If we turn to Battle Hymn itself, we learn very early of Chua’s efforts to construct her children’s ethnicity:
My husband, Jed, is Jewish, and I’m Chinese, which makes our children Chinese-Jewish-American, an ethnic group that may sound exotic but actually forms a majority in certain circles, especially in university towns…. The deal Jed and I struck when we got married was that our children would speak Mandarin Chinese and be raised Jewish. (I was brought up Catholic, but that was easy to give up. Catholicism has barely any roots in my family (but more of that later). In retrospect, this was a funny deal, because I myself don’t speak Mandarin–my native dialect is Hokkien Chinese–and Jed is not religious in the least. I hired a Chinese nanny to speak Mandarin to Sophia, and we celebrated our first Hannukah when Sophia was two months old.
So, we have Amy Chua, making her kids learn Mandarin, a language she has limited connection to, emphasizing the celebration of Hannukah, one of the least significant (religiously) and most Americanized Jewish holidays, to demonstrate the strength of this common new hybrid ethnicity. Where to begin? Many American Jews send their kids to Hebrew school, even though they themselves don’t know any Hebrew, and the language of their ancestors was more likely Yiddish. What Chua did here is not exactly unique. But it does show that any talk of authenticity in terms ethnicity is usually a sham. Chua chose a tradition for her children to follow and a language for them to learn because it is the most dominant dialect in China, not because it represents any link to their family heritage.
Which is why it comes off as disingenuous when Chua later writes: “A tiny part of me regrets that I didn’t marry another Chinese person and worries that I am letting down four thousand years of civilization.” I actually laughed when I read this. If anyone should feel regret about “letting down four thousand years of civilization,” it should be Chua’s husband Jed.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not an “intermarriage is finishing Hitler’s work” type. People, obviously, can and should marry who they want, and intermarriage can in fact be a positive thing for the Jewish community. But not always, and probably not even usually. I have mixed feelings about mixed marriage, but here the numbers are relevant: there are only 13 or 14 million Jews in the world today, several million less than there were in 1939. The Jewish population everywhere outside of Israel is shrinking. Meanwhile, there are over a billion Chinese people in the world. Chinese civilization is going to be ok. You don’t have anything to worry about, Professor Chua. But Jews do. I think Jews and Jewish institutions should accept patrilineal descent en masse (as Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanistic movements already have) and embrace the spouses and children of intermarriages. But even accepting this more tolerant attitude, intermarriage will likely remain a significant problem for the Jewish demographic future.
Indeed, the Chua children’s Jewish identity, like that of their father, law professor and novelist Jed Rubenfeld, seems pretty weak. As this New Yorker review observes, Chua lists the places her daughters had visited by the ages of 12 and 9:
London, Paris, Nice, Rome, Venice, Milan, Amsterdam, The Hague, Barcelona, Madrid, Málaga, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Munich, Dublin, Brussels, Bruges, Strasbourg, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Manila, Istanbul, Mexico City, Cancún, Buenos Aires, Santiago, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, La Paz, Sucre, Cochabamba, Jamaica, Tangier, Fez, Johannesburg, Cape Town, and the Rock of Gibraltar.
The Chuas (or maybe it’s the Rubenfelds) had time to travel all over the world, but couldn’t quite make it to Israel. They held their children’s Bat Mitzvahs in their New Haven home, rather than a synagogue. As Chua admits, her daughter Lucy (Lulu) has a “strong Jewish identity,” stronger than that of her parents and older sister Sophia. While Jed and Amy Chua wanted Lulu to perform a violin piece at her Bat Mitzvah, Lulu correctly pointed out that would be “completely inappropriate” according to Jewish law, which forbids the playing of musical instruments on the Sabbath, when the Bat Mitzvah is typically held.
Of course, Jewish law would also prohibit the Bat Mitzvah itself because of traditional sexist gender roles. I’m not opposed to innovation. I’m a Reconstructionist Jew. I’m all about innovation, along with tradition (Mordecai Kaplan, Reconstructionism’s founder, said Jewish law should get “a vote, but not a veto,” a philosophy I endorse). I would probably be ok with violin at a Bat Mitzvah. But that’s not really my point here. When Chua notes that “unlike Sophia (or for that matter, Jed) Lulu had always insisted on observing Passover rules and fasting on Yom Kippur” my take away is this: since my version of Jewish identity is at least somewhat voluntary, we’ve got one out of two kids emerging from this marriage as Jewish. That’s less than replacement rate. Sure, maybe Sophia eventually comes to embrace her Jewish identity. But statistics suggest that is far from certain (though it would be easier, again, if more members of the Jewish community accepted patrilineal descent).
The fact that Chua’s daughters had Bat Mitzvahs and seem to celebrate some Jewish holidays is great. The reality is that intermarriage is both cause and symptom of assimilation, and that in many such homes, there is no Jewish content at all. When Lulu continued to fight her mother over the playing of the violin at her Bat Mitzvah, she finally stated: “You’re not even Jewish. You don’t know what you’re talking about. This has nothing to do with you.” But Lulu Rubenfeld was wrong. It has everything to do with Amy Chua. To Amy Chua, identity can be constructed and chosen at will. Not only can you play the violin at your Bat Mitzvah, but it doesn’t even matter if one of your kids develops a strong Jewish identity but the other one doesn’t. Maybe that’s ok. Maybe that’s as it should be. But it doesn’t make me smile at the prospects for Jewish continuity in the Diaspora.