Ph.D. Octopus

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The Tiger Mom and Ethnic Identity: The Jewish Angle

with 6 comments

by Weiner

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.


Written by David Weinfeld

March 14, 2011 at 16:35

6 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, but is it really all about Amy Chua? Isn’t it actually about Jed Rubenfeld? I am very sympathetic to the desire in various segments of the Jewish community to nourish Jewish identity in their children and grandchildren, but the problem here doesn’t really seem to be intermarriage (unless Jed is the product of an intermarriage in which case perhaps we could speculate) but the lack of a strong Jewish identity in the one parent who might foster such an identity in his children, and who might also help his wife (who obviously lacks any deep understanding of Judaism and Jewishness) do the same.

    While I understand it may be easier to raise children in a culture and faith when both parents come from that background, I think a willingness to learn and embrace (and perhaps convert depending on the non-Jewish parent’s sentiments) can result in a household with a very strong commitment to raising the next generation in those values (Charlotte from Sex and the City is obviously the most famous example of this, but I’ve encountered at least a few intermarried couple who seem very strong in their cultural/religious practices, at least in part because one of them had to devote time and study as an adult to understanding Jewish culture and faith). So here I really don’t see the problem to be Amy Chua (well only to the extent that she seems very stubborn about how things ought to be done, which seems to be more a function of personality than background, despite her claims to tiger motherhood), but Rubenfeld, who doesn’t seem to have been very committed to his Jewish background to begin with. Perhaps marrying a Jewish woman might have changed that– but if she came in just as uncommitted as he, is it likely?

    My two cents as a non-Jew (who nonetheless is interested in identity politics and Jewish studies).


    March 16, 2011 at 22:50

    • Great comment Luce. You’re right that it’s much more about Jed Rubenfeld than Amy Chua. But before I respond more directly, a quick point of clarification:

      For my purposes, and the purposes of most scholars and critics who study Jewish demography, “intermarriage” only refers to marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew where there is NO CONVERSION. If the non-Jewish spouse converts to Judaism, then it is no longer an intermarriage, but a marriage between two Jews.

      Thus, I completely agree with you that “a willingness to learn and embrace” can lead to children with strong Jewish identities. Indeed, in the case of conversion, because the Jewish conversion process is so lengthy and arduous, the convert often becomes MORE Jewish identified that the spouse born into the faith (thus Charlotte wants Harry to turn off the Mets game during Shabbatt dinner).

      As to your comment, I think you’re right that the main issue is that Jed Rubenfeld is not that concerned with Jewish identity. If he was, he either would have married another Jew, or insisted Chua convert, or insisted on a greater degree of Jewish content in his children’s lives.

      But I don’t think we should discount the effect of one Jew marrying another, even if both have relatively weak Jewish identities. My impression is that two Jewish parents will often go through the motions of doing Jewish things: going to synagogue, celebrating some holidays, maybe even sending their kids to Jewish day or afternoon schools or Jewish summer camps, visiting Israel, exploring Jewish sites and museums, etc., that intermarried parents are less likely to do.

      The data on this topic is quite clear: two Jewish parents are MUCH more likely than intermarried parents to produce strongly Jewish identified children.

      Here gender is a factor: children of Jewish mothers are Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law, whereas children with only a Jewish father are not. That’s why I mentioned patrilineal descent a couple of times: it’s a crucial issue to make “half-Jews” (I actually reject the term as really there’s no such thing, you’re either Jewish or you’re not according to Jewish law and in my view) feel welcome. The Reform, Reconstructionist and Humanistic Jewish movements already do this, as do most Jewish who simply consider themselves cultural or secular Jews. The Conservative movement is ambivalent on this issue, the Orthodox (and of course the ultra-Orthodox) will not budge on it.

      Even putting aside the issue of gender, as I said earlier, not only are children with only one Jewish parent much less likely to identify as Jewish, but children with one Jewish grandparent (children of “half-Jews”) are EXTREMELY unlikely to identify as Jewish (I recall reading the number is something like only 4% of these children identify as Jews).

      But those are generalities and statistics. In the case of Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld, as you point out, the real “problem” (if we are to think of this as a problem) is Jed Rubenfeld’s weak Jewish identity. Again, it’s not clear what is cause or symptom: if Rubenfeld had a stronger Jewish identity, maybe he could have convinced Chua to convert, but if he had a really strong Jewish identity, maybe he wouldn’t have married her in the first place.

      The reality is, as one AJS conference member stated, the intermarriage and assimilation are the price of admission for full integration into American society. When Jews had a much lower intermarriage rate, as low as 10% or less, social antisemitism thrived in the United States. There was less intermarriage not simply because Jews didn’t want to marry non-Jews, but more importantly, non-Jews didn’t want to marry Jews. As America became more tolerant, and non-Jews became more willing to be friends and schoolmates and business partners and co-workers with Jews, they also became more willing to marry them. In essence, there’s no going backwards. To reduce the intermarriage rate significantly would probably mean to reduce the level of integration, and I don’t think any modern Jews really want that.


      March 18, 2011 at 13:55

  2. […] that’s why I post so much about intermarriage, and Zionism, Jewishness, and identity. Because I feel heavily […]

  3. I was really surprised that Mrs. Chua (aka Tiger mom) with all her emphasis on raising kids in the “Chinese way” married a Jew and not another fellow Chinese American. I mean you’d think she would fully embrace her ethnic identity and marry someone in her own ethnic group. I think she is more white-washed than she’s saying she is of being a traditional Chinese parent. I’m just sayin’.


    February 27, 2012 at 11:08

  4. […] student housing common room to watch the Linsanity. And it’s exciting. Heck even Tiger Mom Amy Chua tweeted that her and her family are “huge” Jeremy Lin fans, and linked to this […]

  5. […] part, antisemitism does not threaten Jews in the Diaspora, at least certainly not in North America. I’ve written about this many times before on this very blog. The real threat is assimilation, […]

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