When You're Thinking of Everyone Else, but No One Is Thinking about You
The authors of JewAsian reflect on Jewish and Asian traumas, racism, and healing.
How many times have you walked into work, or a store, or a classroom the day after an attack on Jews somewhere in the world, to find that no one seems to have noticed? You think about the victims, their families, why they were targeted, what could have gone differently, and maybe most of all, why are people still killing us? Where’s the outrage?
But then, what do we want them to say? “Gee, I’m sorry about that massacre. John left some homemade banana bread in the kitchen.” So you find yourself hoping no one will say anything and you can be spared the awkwardness.
I didn’t realize many Asian Americans have been feeling the same way for a long time, revealing my own blindspot. According to many sources, anti-Asian hate crimes shot up during the pandemic, culminating in a national convulsion of horror when a man fatally shot six Asian women at Atlanta-area spas. The response included voices of Asian Jews, a community with a unique take on identity.
It seemed a good time to catch up with Whitman College professors Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt, a married couple of Korean and Jewish heritage with two young kids of their own, whose 2016 book JewAsian set out to examine the burgeoning community of young Jewish Asians and how they navigated their relationships to culture, ethnicity, history. Thanks to Helen and Noah for finding the time to reconnect during, coincidentally, both Jewish Heritage and Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage months.
Making Invisible Spaces More Visible
Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt, authors of JewAsian, reflect on the state of Jewish and Asian identities in the age of inclusivity.
The book was published in 2016, which feels like a lifetime ago. What has changed since then?
Helen: You’re right, it feels like a long time ago. I think there’s so much more attention and coverage and interest and testimonies from Jews of color in general. So much more attention being paid within the Jewish community, which is awesome, and outside the Jewish community. That’s great. I think there’s a lot more at the organizational or institutional level, what I would say increasingly serious attention being paid — and not just lip service — to how to think about diverse, equitable, and inclusive spaces, for all Jews to exist, and particularly for Jews of color.
Noah: When we interviewed the kids of Jewish-Asian households who are in their late teens, early to mid-twenties, they talked a lot about their activism. One of the things I’ve really noticed over the last five years are that conversations in Jewish spaces and in society are being led by mixed-race Jews — not just Asian Jews — but Jews of lots of different backgrounds. They’re driving a lot of the awareness and institutional changes. And there just wasn’t that social moment and that opening when we were talking to them back in the mid part of last decade. So it’s been really heartening [to see that] folks of that demographic are taking advantage of the shifts in society to kind of describe their realities and make suggestions and get involved in internal organizational efforts to create more inclusive congregations. That energy has kind of found an outlet, and that’s been awesome. I think [we’re] seeing the fruits of that commitment, and a lot of them are doing it as really active Jews. There’s a lot more responsiveness right now than there was pre-Trump.
Right. Asian Jews seem to have taken a more vocal role calling out marginalization in the Jewish community. What do you think is driving that?
Helen: Have you seen the film Minari? I point to it because Steven Yeun, who plays the father, was interviewed by Jay Caspian Kang for the New York Times Sunday magazine. One Korean American man talking to another Korean American man. In the interview, Steven Yeun said the following: “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.” That was such a revelatory statement that encapsulated what I believe. It came out in this moment when we were starting to learn more in a public way all the examples of Asian hate that were going on. Steven Yeun’s statement was sort of taking place in this moment where it felt like something was going to happen. And then a few months later, the killings in Atlanta took place. So I guess none of this is new in terms of, I think, what a lot of Asian Americans feel and experience on a day-to-day basis. As we see in so many other cases of violence, we have platforms people are engaging with vis-à-vis social media, to make invisible spaces more visible.
It’s really a profound quote, and I think it’s something that applies to Jews as well. When you’re thinking about everyone else, but no one is thinking about you. I relate to that as well. For example, after the killings in Atlanta, a colleague who is Asian posted to Facebook a statement that was like, I have to speak out about this, it’s so hard to go back to work the next day or go out into the world and have life go on as usual. I was like, gosh, that’s exactly how I have felt after a synagogue shooting or a terrorist attack, and there’s no acknowledgement. And I don’t know if I want acknowledgment.
Helen: I was talking to a student right after Atlanta happened, a Korean American student who heads the Asian American club on campus. This experience for her, in terms, the coverage, was the first time in her life. She had this moment: “Should I and should the club say anything?” Part of the hesitation was because she as an Asian American person didn’t want to detract from the experiences of say, Blacks and African Americans, who confront this multiple times daily. She honestly and poignantly said, “I didn’t want to be seen as taking anything away. It sounds like oppression Olympics.”
I told her about another former student of mine who is a Korean American pastor in the Seattle area. One of his friends, who’s an African American woman, after the Atlanta shootings reached out to him and some other Asian Americans, and they talked about Black Lives Matter versus Stop Asian Hate. And he put it very pointedly, like, I’m tired of this conversation where Jimmy is the person who either punches Susie or Ben in the face or the jaw. The conversation is always like, well, did Susie suffer more or did Ben suffer more? But it’s never about going to Jimmy and Jimmy’s parents and saying, “You did something wrong to the two of us.” So the point that he was trying to make was, we’re not really in those kinds of conversations — we’re hesitating — and the area focus should be on white supremacy.
I think you’re onto something here. We’re trying to find the nucleus of the problem. But I’m challenged by this, too, because we have come very far from white supremacy, and most of us are doing quite well. And the other part is, the Atlanta shooting was also about misogyny and sexual repression. The shooter said that right after he was arrested. How do we make sense of that?
Noah: Whether somebody verbalizes or articulates race being in play, the reality is, race is in play. There’s something about that which always makes me skeptical of a non-race driven explanation for some act of hatred or violence where there’s racial difference. People with severe violent tendencies probably have strong feelings of internal self-hatred and other hatred and don’t necessarily diagnose why they do things in ways that maybe are really why they do things.
Helen: I agree with Noah. The other quote that sticks out to me was the chief of police. He said, “He was just having a bad day.” There’s always “would so-and-so have said the same thing if we changed the races of the victims?” I think things would probably look very different. Without going way back, it’s everything to me. The history of Asian American exclusion is not without gender. It has relied on gender. One of the ways it has relied on gender is going way back, to historically portray Asian female bodies as bodies that are up for consumption and rape and dehumanization in terms of sexual conquest. It’s everything, because the origins of the dehumanization were and continue to be about these intersections.
Noah: To your question about what’s changed since the book came out, one of the really significant shifts in society has been the understanding that for centuries, structured brainwashing on a system of racial oppression really gets in and works in very complicated ways. Thinking about that opens up the possibility for understanding how the racial classifications, even when they’re not articulated or understood, are driving actions that are very discriminatory and often coming out of just being brainwashed into a way of thinking about difference that permits different treatment often much worse and much, much more dangerous treatment than for people who we think about as like us, because they’re the same race, even though that doesn’t really make any difference.
Whether or not people agree with the 1619 Project, [we’re] being given an invitation to tackle what that centuries-long deliberate programming effort has done when we see these things in the news. I think the reason why I feel so strongly about it is because next to us, in Idaho, there’s a lot of legislative efforts to try to not talk about institutional racism or not talk about how four centuries of slavery and post-slavery social organization lead to these enormous outcomes in life. There wouldn’t be pushback to those if people didn’t think that they were actually driving our society and that they should be upheld for a certain very small, privileged group of people. I think it gets to all of this and the deep sinking in of all of that hierarchical permission that race-based social organization allows. People are kind of pushing back on it and identifying it and pointing to it and saying, this is why these things are so out of whack right now, this is why Covid has been so disproportionately horrible for people of color and indigenous people, because of this social organization for centuries.
What about the overlapping sense of trauma that Jews and Asians experience? Are there things that can help us think about healing?
Helen: It’s interesting. In terms of stories that I believe are generally not told within the Korean and Korean American community…. My parents immigrated in the late ’60s, and my mother in particular was a child of the Korean War. That is a history that is never talked about. Rather than “never forget,” it’s like, “we’ll do everything to forget.”
My mom is approaching her 80s, and I feel like time is ticking to try to draw out as much as I can. Those stories have clearly shaped who she is, coming out of very intense trauma. It’s another example of an experience rooted in war that gets pushes deep in the body. In terms of me, the second generation, I recognize that there are some aspects of intergenerational trauma that are there. Trying to ask and encourage her to tell those stories, selfishly for me, selfishly for my kids, but ultimately for her, is one way to move out of that sense of trauma to something more human.
It’s very similar to first generation Holocaust survivors. No one talked about it. How could you?
Helen: Exactly. It’s history repeating itself with a different population. I look to literature. I look to some really wonderful Korean American literature to understand the stories through a fictional lens. It helps me grapple with some of those emotions and questions, especially because I’m not super hopeful that before my mother dies those stories will really come out of her.
It’s interesting with Asian Americans and Jewish Americans now. It’s important to do all those celebratory things associated with heritage months. It’s important to talk about points of connection and points of difference that might be painful.
Helen’s recommended reading and films:
Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
The Surrendered, by Chang-rae Lee
Haunting the Korean Diaspora, by Grace M. Cho
Check out the Seattle Jewish community calendar.
This week’s parasha is Bamidbar.
Candlelighting in Seattle is at 8:22 p.m.
Shavuot starts Sunday night at 8:24 p.m.
This week has been a brutal one for the Jewish community. Wishing our family and friends in Israel and the world over a Shabbat shalom and an end to the violence, ken yehi ratzon.
Mazal tov to Ariel Green and Dr. Yoelit Lipinsky on their engagement! —Dina Levitan
I would like to offer a prayer for peace and safety for all factions in the raging conflict that has enveloped Israel and Gaza. —Charlene Kahn
Mazal Tov to Yael Chotzen and Jared Brown on the birth of a baby boy. —Sonya & Etan Basseri
I want to give a shout out to the 150 people who showed up on a moment’s notice for a public rally in support of Israel as it defends itself against Hamas attacks! —Randy Kessler
A poem worth reading: I Have No Country Other (Ain Li Eretz Acheret). —Kathleen Alcala