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Kimchee on the Seder Plate: A Look at Multiracial Jewishness on Passover and Beyond

Kimchee on the Seder Plate: A Look at Multiracial Jewishness on Passover and Beyond

Passover is full of flavors: the bitter herbs, the juicy charoset, the crunchy matzah. But what about spicy?

In 2003, then-Cantor Angela Warnick Buchdahl explained the intensity and the relevance of the spiciness of Passover in a short autobiographical essay published in Sh’ma. In “Kimchee on the Seder Plate,” she described how she brought her Korean lineage, via her mother, to her understanding of Jewish practice and identity. Optimistically, she concluded, “May we continue to see the many faces of Israel as a gift that enriches our people.”

At the time, Cantor Buchdahl was a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, serving in a Reform synagogue in Westchester County under a charismatic leader named Rabbi Rick Jacobs. Her piece ushered in a much-needed awareness of multiracial Jewishness in the United States.

Fast forward a dozen years. Rabbi Jacobs is now the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Cantor (now Rabbi) Buchdahl has become the senior rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, leading the White House's Hanukkah ceremony last year before an admiring President Obama. Her pioneering spirit, optimism and awareness is, in a sense, ready to celebrate its bat mitzvah, gaining adult sensibilities and a higher level of acceptance and responsibility in the Jewish community.

We are particularly excited about this moment for two reasons. First, as a mixed-race couple with two young, mixed-race children living in a small community, we see an American Judaism that is ready to be open and responsive to the increasing demographic diversity in our country. We want our kids, Ari and Talia, not only to feel that they are Jewish but also to be seen as fully Jewish in their congregation and in society.

Second, as sociologists who have spent the past seven years learning about households that blend Jewish and Asian heritages under one roof, we know that Jewish-Asian relationships are an example of how diversity can be “good for the Jews.” In our most recent article, published February in the Journal of Jewish Identities (and co-authored with one of our former students, who is herself from a Jewish and Asian couple), we found that kids raised in households such as Rabbi Buchdahl’s, with Jewish and Asian parents, create children with strong Jewish identities and Jewish practice. Many times, their Jewish practice is even stronger than that of their parents.

Many of the couples we have interviewed affiliate with Reform congregations, and many of the young women and men from Jewish-Asian households self-identify as Reform. This is not surprising, given Reform Judaism’s positive attitude, steps toward inclusion, and enthusiasm for households that don’t “look” stereotypically Jewish. (Thankfully, Reform Judaism seems a little ahead of other aspects of organized Jewish life in the U.S., as several recent popular blog posts have discussed.) We hope leaders like rabbis Jacobs and Buchdahl will continue to push the Reform Jewish community in these positive directions.

During this season of reflection, redemption, and liberation, we will be focusing on the erav rav, the “mixed multitude” through which Rabbi Buchdahl claimed lineage and the way that American notions of what Judaism looks like will continue to change and adjust to the newest generations. While we may not put kimchee on our seder plates, we will be celebrating in ways that help our family honor and pass on the many components of what make us an ever more common part of American Judaism.

Helen Kim and Noah Leavitt are members of Congregation Beth Israel in Walla Walla, WA. Helen is associate professor of sociology and Noah is associate dean of students at Whitman College. Their children, Ari and Talia Kim-Leavitt, are 6 and 3, respectively.

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