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RI VOICES

What does it mean to identify as both Jewish and AAPI?

Jews of color make up 9 percent of the Jewish population

Three vignettes about intersectionality and identity from the cofounder of Red Envelope Stories.

‘I’m celebrating Hanukkah because I’m Chinese’

I remember being 5 when my neighbor asked how I planned to celebrate Christmas. I responded, “Oh no, I’m celebrating Hanukkah because I’m Chinese.” Of course, I was met with a blank glare and gaping mouth but, back then, my Asian American and Jewish identities weren’t all that separate.

I was adopted from China at 10 months old and raised in a white, Jewish family. Growing up, I’ve thought a lot about the ways that Jewish and Asian American identity in America are made invisible. It’s the notion of being so close to whiteness — being labeled as an honorary white — that leads to less noticeable forms of oppression. When minority and ethnic groups are pitted against one another, white supremacy continues. Two years ago, to reconcile the cognitive dissonance around my identity, I started wearing a Star of David around my neck -- a physical representation of my Jewish identity.

For so long, I had been questioned about whether I was Jewish or not. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah and I didn’t look like most other Jews. During Yom Kippur, my teacher asked students who were fasting to raise their hands so they could receive an extension on their homework. When I raised mine, she asked if I was sure of what she had said. Her skepticism, in front of the entire class, embarrassed me. It was as if she was deciding my Jewishness for me. Currently, as I train to become a middle school teacher myself, I want to push back against labels and stereotypes and foster my empathy to help students grow confidence in their identities.

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— Sadie, Providence

‘There aren’t many kosher Japanese foods so I sacrificed, choosing one part of my identity over the other’

My mother was a Buddhist, but while dating my father, she converted to Judaism. The Chief Rabbinate (the religious authority) wouldn’t acknowledge she was Jewish so we figured out the process by ourselves. My family made our own kosher kitchen and set a schedule on reading the Torah weekly. We created spiritual meaning together.

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Because my mother and I don’t appear traditionally Jewish, we had to prove ourselves all the more and not give anyone any reason to question our status as Jews. There aren’t many kosher Japanese foods so I sacrificed, choosing one part of my identity over the other. During New Years celebrations with my mother’s family, homemade dishes were off limits to us and conversations in Japanese were incomprehensible when we only spoke English.

After joining the Taeko team in college, I started thinking of how my Jewish and Asian identities influence each other. In Japanese culture, my mother speaks of respecting nature. In Jewish culture, there is emphasis on the raw beauty of nature. As someone who enjoys outdoor activities and hikes, it’s a place where I’ve begun to find answers and solace.

— Kiku, Providence

‘During Passover, we say, “We are not free until we are all free”'

There’s this Jewish principle that’s always stuck with me—Tikkun Olam. How it’s interpreted in reform Judaism is that we each have the responsibility to solve the world’s injustices. After all, Jews experienced oppression in Biblical times and during the Holocaust. We were once slaves in Egypt, freed by God, and through our privileges, it’s our job to free everyone out. During Passover, we say, “We are not free until we are all free.”

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I want more people to talk about Jews of color because we make up 9 percent of the Jewish population. My mother never felt comfortable at Temple, and I don’t want to speak for her, but she started the process of converting after marrying my father and stopped, likely, I imagine, for her ostracization—for her Asianness. I’ve been called a chink by my peers in Temple and forced to question if I was Jewish “enough.” Race-wise, ethnicity-wise—am I Jewish? Still, Orthodox Jews, who believe that the mother passes down Judaism to her children, wouldn’t consider me to be.

— Callie, Providence