The Asian Jew: Defying Cultural Norms in the United States

Hannah Joy Sachs

Hannah Joy Sachs (class of 2016) grew up in Westchester County, New York. She was adopted from China at five months of age and has developed a keen interest in connecting her Chinese and Jewish identities. She has yet to declare a major but hopes to focus on diaspora studies through the Center. At Davidson, Hannah is an active member of Hillel, ACAA, and Adopt a Grandparent. She is also a STRIDE mentor, a member of the 2013 Orientation Team, and Turner House. In addition, she started a Charlotte-based mentorship program for children adopted from China. This summer, Hannah spent 10 weeks in Thailand, Burma, and Laos traveling and working with a company that leads high school student service and cultural immersion trips across SE Asia. In her spare time, Hannah loves horseback riding, reading and learning about ethnic minorities and marginalized peoples, traveling, and photography. This piece was written for Dr. Marti’s sociology class on Race and Ethnic Relations.

Racism persists partly because of generations’ continuous exposure to social practices and norms in the United States. We grow up hearing racial slurs, seeing distinct groups being privileged repeatedly, and are sometimes victims of racially-charged attacks. A seemingly innocent exchange between two individuals has the potential to reflect or to accentuate trends of racism in America. These everyday interactions raise questions about ethnicity, race, and relations between groups that come from different backgrounds and are members of different communities.

As a society, members of the dominant culture often create niches for individuals who are differently raced, have unique heritages, or are simply concerned not “normal” white Americans. Some see an Asian person, and assume she is a foreigner (here, let us define foreigner as a person whose native language is other than English and who cannot pass as an American citizen because of accent, tradition, or religion). Likewise, blacks often get characterized as dirty, lazy, and poor without considering that persons might be West Indian, a recent African immigrant, or part of the upper class. These niches can define us, and it is difficult to escape the expectations and assumptions with which others often burden us. Conversely, some individuals aren’t placed within niche categories, and may feel that they belong nowhere.

In third grade, I found myself in a situation that compromised my prior understanding of self and my sense of group membership. As the only non-Caucasian member of a Hebrew school with nearly three hundred students, I knew that I was different. People stared. My mom told me it was because these classmates wanted to be my friend or thought I was pretty, but I new they were questioning my very presence. Though their mouths remained closed, I could not move from one room to another without feeling the glare of their judgments. This tacit behavior continued for about a year and a half. But one day a classmate sat next to me in the sanctuary and asked bluntly: “So why are you here? I mean, I know you say your parents are Jewish, but is it, like, legal to be both Asian and Jewish? I’ve never met an Asian Jew before, and there are no others here.”

He trailed off, not finishing his thought, but I was already stunned. I considered us friends, so was I to brush off this incident as a misunderstanding or excuse him on behalf of his naievete? Or should I, a soft-spoken and timid eight-year-old, make a scene in the midst of services? Furthermore, if someone feels emboldened to ask me if I, in essence, belong to my face, what did my other classmates say outside my presence? And, did he really think of me as just one troubling instance rather than an equally-devoted member of the synagogue and Jewish community? Finally, he asked if it was legal to be both Asian and Jewish, making my hybridity a judicial matter.

As the only Asian in Hebrew School, it was clear I didn’t fit the expected notion of a Jew.  Jewishness is typically understood in two ways: as followers of a distinct minority religion, or as an ethnic identity, one that flourishes in the Middle East, Europe, or Israel. But this standard view restricts those who, like me, do not fall into the traditional categories. Since Middle Eastern, European, and Israeli Jews have worked to accentuate their whiteness (and its associated privileges) we tend to classify Jews as white. In fingerprint The Asian Jew: Defying Cultural Norms in the United StatesAmerica, whiteness imputes status. Yet, my Asian background–including what some call a “yellow” skin tone–troubles this ideal. As one sociologist points out, while “white skin. . .was perceived as an absence of color, not ‘stained with pigment,’ [Asians and Mongolians] became a certain kind of racial opposite.1 The discrepancy between a Jewish/white and Jewish/Asian identity therefore put me in an “other” category, which diminishes my status from an individual with desirable traits to someone defined by ambiguity and inconsistency. While he may not have intended to do so, my classmate belittled my existence and made me confused about my own identity; not only did he imply that I did not belong with the Jews as a people, but he also highlighted my Asian features, which in turn doubly reinforced my minority status and inferiority.

Yolanda Adams (in an essay with the telling title “Don’t Want to Be Black Anymore”) notices that a “fascination with color seems odd, considering that every label can be either an insult or a compliment.”2 Being called out as an Asian Jew made me self-conscious and hyper-aware of my identity, a feeling many minority persons find disruptive. As Adams puts this, “When people see me. . .they invariably look past the person and see my color.”3 Similarly, my Jewish identity is made invisible by my skin color. Racial identity overpowers religious devotion. I cannot, without tension, be an Asian Jew. Furthermore, according to the logic Adams observes, for many white Americans,  I cannot be a Jew.

In third grade, I found myself in a situation that compromised my prior understanding of self and my sense of group membership.

My hybridity is this: I am an Asian by blood, a Jew by faith, and consider myself a full member of the Polish and Russian family that has raised me. But my identity is almost always reflected back to me as hyphenated, partial, and incomplete. Uehara-Carter underscores this point in “On Being Blackanese:” “No society can tell me that I am more of one culture than another because of the way someone else defines me.”4 By illustrating her unique identity, Uehara-Carter redefines who an American can be and what an American can look like. Many assume that identity features are mutually exclusive, and that one cannot blend two (or more) identities without losing the authenticity of one trait or another. Tellingly, Uehara-Carter admits that she is most offended by “the attitudes of bewilderment and the exoticism of [her] being” on which others focus.5 While she robustly defends her identity, she must expend significant energy to constantly correct and educate others. In retrospect, I too felt resentful that my classmate demanded that I somehow validate my presence. At the same time, however, I felt like I should apologize for making him confused and uncomfortable.

Dawkins’ “Apologizing for Being a Black Male” exposes the daily struggles for black men in a white-dominant society. While Asians (the “model minority”) are not stereotyped as threatening in the way that black men are, both groups must constantly prove their worth in public. Dawkins describes himself as “reluctant” to complete daily tasks in the presence of white females; he fears misunderstanding or snap judgments from bystanders, with whom he finds himself “apologizing, at least internally, for being a Black male.”6 After my classmate’s comment,  I discovered myself questioning my right to be in the temple. I reevaluated my comfort as the only minority member of the congregation, and internally apologized for intruding into this group of whites, an impossible request for forgiveness undeserved.

When perceived inconsistencies in one’s identity are noticed by others, the authenticity of the “assembled” parts is brought into question. Is it impossible for someone to truly be Jewish if she is also Asian? Can a person be fully Asian if she practices a religion other than Buddhism, Daoism, or Confucianism? Authenticity is understood as one’s loyalty to a certain singular identity, as on practices customs, speaks the language, and looks the part. Authenticity is often a function of one’s biological (rather than adoptive) family status, especially when a child’s race differs from that of the new parents. Sarah Van’t Hul reminds us that many blacks thought “it more damaging for black children to be adopted by whites than to be placed in foster care” because a white family corrupts a black child’s access to black culture, heritage, and identity.7 Though the adoption of Asian children by white parents became more frequent in the 1990s when I was adopted, it was still unusual, and almost never went unnoticed.

But hybridity can also fascinate. At Hebrew School, my Asian Jewishness made me wonderfully exotic. No one seem repulsed by my attendance. I brought diversity to my family and modified (I would like to think for the good) their own identities as adoptive parents. Still, I wonder if I am expected to be more loyal to my adoptive family’s roots than to myfingerprint The Asian Jew: Defying Cultural Norms in the United States biological Asian ones? Do people not reckon fully with my religious affiliation when they classify me as Asian-American based purely on my physical features? Ever since that classmate doubted my legitimacy as a Jew, I have worn David’s star at my neck and have taken an active role in Jewish organizations, including a leadership position in Davidson College’s Hillel. But accentuating one trait only goes so far. I cannot change my Asian features. In a culture seemingly obsessed with race, my Asian face will always predominate, no matter what else I emphasize.

Six years after the incident with my classmate, I asked him about his impertinent question.  He had no recollection of asking it (which speaks volumes to the concept of social privilege), but I have remained forever changed by it. White Americans asks us to negotiate our identities and to navigate social exchanges so that they can remain comfortable and complacent about the power of whiteness. Often these expectations manifest themselves in what may seem to outsiders minor, trivial, or insignificant ways. But each comment is potentially potent since each causes a measure of adjustment, even change. Redefining identity becomes burdensome over a lifetime that need not be marked by the demand to fully make sense to everyone else.


Ferrante, Joan and Prince Brown,  Jr. The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States. Boston: Longman, 1998.

Keevak, Michael. Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011.


  1. Michael Keevak, Becoming Yellow: A Short History of Racial Thinking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 62. []
  2. quoted in Joan Ferrante and Prince Brown, Jr. The Social Construction of Race and Ethnicity in the United States (Boston: Longman, 1998), 50. []
  3. Ibid., 51. []
  4. quoted in Ferrante and Brown, 53. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. quoted in Ferrante and Brown, 68. []
  7. Ibid., 81. []