Funny, You Don't Look Jewish

An Ashkenazic Reform Korean rabbi explores her identity.

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Reprinted with permission from Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility (June 2003).

One year my mother put kimchee, a spicy, pickled cabbage condiment, on our seder plate. My Korean mother thought it was a reasonable substitution since both kimchee and horseradish elicit a similar sting in the mouth, the same clearing of the nostrils. She also liked kimchee on gefilte fish and matza. "Kimchee just like maror, but better," she said. I resigned myself to the fact that we were never going to be a "normal" Jewish family.

A Mixed Multitude

I grew up part of the "mixed multitude" of our people: an Ashkenazi, Reform Jewish father, a Korean Buddhist mother. I was born in Seoul and moved to Tacoma, Washington, at the age of five. Growing up, I knew my family was atypical, yet we were made to feel quite at home in our synagogue and community. My Jewish education began in my synagogue preschool, extended through cantorial and rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College (HUC), and continues today. I was the first Asian American to graduate from the rabbinical program at HUC, but definitely not the last--a Chinese American rabbi graduated the very next year, and I am sure others will follow.

 

As a child, I believed that my sister and I were the "only ones" in the Jewish community--the only ones with Asian faces, the only ones whose family trees didn't have roots in Eastern Europe, the only ones with kimchee on the seder plate. But as I grew older, I began to see myself reflected in the Jewish community. I was the only multiracial Jew at my Jewish summer camp in 1985; when I was a song-leader a decade later, there were a dozen. I have met hundreds of people in multiracial Jewish families in the Northeast through the Multiracial Jewish Network. Social scientist Gary Tobin numbers interracial Jewish families in the hundreds of thousands in North America.

rabbi angela w. buchdahlAs I learned more about Jewish history and culture, I found it very powerful to learn that being of mixed race in the Jewish community was not just a modern phenomenon. We were a mixed multitude when we left Egypt and entered Israel, and the Hebrews continued to acquire different cultures and races throughout our Diaspora history. Walking through the streets of modern-day Israel, one sees the multicolored faces of Ethiopian, Russian, Yemenite, Iraqi, Moroccan, Polish, and countless other races of Jews--many facial particularities, but all Jewish. Yet, if you were to ask the typical secular Israeli on the street what it meant to be Jewish, she might respond, "It's not religious so much, it's my culture, my ethnicity." If Judaism is about culture, what then does it mean to be Jewish when Jews come from so many different cultures and ethnic backgrounds?

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Rabbi Angela W. Buchdahl

Angela Warnick Buchdahl was invested as the first Asian-American cantor in 1999. Just two years later, she made history again with ordination from HUC-JIR, becoming the first Asian American rabbi. Buchdahl served as associate rabbi and cantor at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, and currently serves as cantor of Central Synagogue in New York City.