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Romance Bloomed for a Jew and an Asian American, Until Tribalism Trumped Love

I said I’d convert to placate my boyfriend. But his family would never disregard the fact that I was Korean.

E. Tammy Kim
August 25, 2014
Alessandra Olanow
Alessandra Olanow
Alessandra Olanow
Alessandra Olanow
This article is part of Love.
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New York City’s least remarkable interracial couple is the Asian American woman/Jewish man. In middle-class, over-educated enclaves of Manhattan and Brooklyn, it’s an inescapable pair.

Yet it took me a while—a decade in the city—to join these ubiquitous ranks. For years I had dated mostly Korean and Asian-American men, opting for bodily familiarity and trying to fulfill my parents’ vision of an appropriate mate. As I hacked my own path through the brush of my early 30s, however, I grew open to new possibilities of attraction and desire.

It’s an experience we’re quickly losing to the glance-and-swipe froideur of Internet dating: the man who’s not your type but sends you reeling in person; the unwelcome Eros that barges its way in. That’s how it was with P., my first Jewish boyfriend, whom I loved and who loved me in equal, unwitting measure. In our universe of two, we might have had many more years ahead of us, but in the real world, we succumbed to the fatal, familial tribalism that dating profiles articulate as “preference.”

I met P. at the office in 2012, when I was a daydreaming legal-services attorney and freelance writer and he was in his final semester of law school. He’d enrolled in a clinical course that partnered with the non-profit organization where I worked, and I was assigned to supervise him on a case.

He was serious and a bit shy; diligent, skilled at legal research and compassionate toward our low-income clients. On train rides to meet plaintiffs in Queens and the Lower East Side, we’d commiserate about law school and talk about the pretentious things we’d recently read and seen—Ronald Dworkin’s essays in the New York Review and films by Terrence Malick. I enjoyed his company and admired his wavy, side-parted hair and natty denim shirts but didn’t think of him as more than a colleague.

Months after he finished his internship and graduated from law school, I received an email from P. out of the blue. I’d by then quit my lawyering job, having finagled a yearlong journalism fellowship, and was savoring my reckless plunge. P. had just returned from his post-bar-exam travels and had a few weeks to go before his first day at a corporate law firm. Yes, he was going Big Law, but he still had public-interest ambitions, he wrote. “Could we meet to discuss organizations and volunteer opportunities?” “Sure,” I replied.

We got together at a bar in my neighborhood and each ordered a glass of wine. Although it was the longest we’d ever talked, the conversation unfurled outside the confines of our old workplace. We gabbed about career paths and pro bono work, contemporary painting and travel. He started out tentative, then opened up just enough to reveal a charming mix of self-deprecation and earnest curiosity. Yet when P. laughed, which he did sparingly, making me feel I’d really earned it, his eyes revealed something besides amusement: vulnerability; a note of sadness he later explained as trepidation.

We exchanged more emails, added text messages and met again, still just as friends. But by the time Hurricane Sandy hit New York, our relationship had become something more. P. hadn’t started his law-firm job, and electricity problems forced my officemates and me to take a “hurrication.” With time on our hands, P. and I made peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches and walked them across the Brooklyn Bridge to a makeshift relief base in Chinatown. We spent hours talking and lying around, soaking in the childlike sensation of learning someone new.

I told him about my Korean immigrant family: my parents in the Pacific Northwest and surly brother, and the stories I hoped to write about violence and loss in our splintered extended clan. P. listened and nodded in that secret handshake of the dysfunctional but said little about his upbringing. I knew that he’d grown up in New Jersey with younger brothers and parents who were professionals. I knew, of course, that they were Jewish, yet I assumed they were mostly secular—like P., atheists with a stray yarmulke lying around the house.

By winter, we felt unduly content. We built our little cave, as it were, and filled it only with the new. Then one day, as we lazed about in bed, he hugged me and began to cry.

Would I convert to Judaism, he asked.

“Huh? No, I don’t think so,” I said. “You know I’m an evangelical atheist … Don’t worry—your parents will come around,” I reassured him without any basis in fact.

“No, they won’t,” he said. “You really don’t understand. If you don’t agree to convert, it’ll never work out.”

I could see how genuinely torn he felt, yet his parents’ predicted disapproval was still abstract. After all, neither of us had spoken to our families. It couldn’t possibly be as bad as we imagined.

His extended clan, I then learned, was made up of Conservative and Orthodox Jews. His dad was a rabbi; his mom worked in Jewish education. P. had been reared in Orthodox yeshivas but related to his Jewishness as a matter of history and social milieu rather than religion. As much as he poked fun at his insular, rigid parents, though, he worried about being disowned. To marry a non-white gentile, he said, would mean leaving his family’s entire world behind.

A secular Jew in my shoes might have seen the perilous road ahead or at least been on the lookout for blockades. But having grappled with my own parents’ narrow-mindedness around race and family values—and their more legitimate concerns about language and transpacific geography—I expected P.’s folks to overcome their tribalism. In multicultural Brooklyn, it seemed unthinkable that a family’s irrational, prejudicial disapproval could win the day.

Tribalists, after all, are losing to secularism, hybridity, and intermarriage. As we know from last October’s Pew Research study, 32 percent of Jewish millennials like P. “describe themselves as having no religion.” The majority of Jews wed since 2000 have out-married, and 37 percent of “intermarried Jews” raising children “are not raising those children Jewish at all.” According to the U.S. Census, between 2000 and 2010, the biracial black-white population increased by 134 percent, and the Asian-white population by 87 percent.

The data, however, couldn’t mitigate the threats to our relationship. P. felt split between his entire social community and me. He said it’d taken weeks of therapy before he decided to contact me and risk a potentially doomed affair. And so, I told my tearful beloved that I would consider converting.

In the short term, that vague promise was sufficient to bind us. While I found the idea distasteful to say the least, I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to P.’s position. If there had been an equivalent process that could induce a state of Koreanness and fluency in the language and immerse him in our family’s culture and vocabulary of migration, I might have asked the same favor.

We stayed together, although certain aspects of P.’s life remained off-limits. We kept away from the Upper East Side, where he was sure he’d run into his parents’ best friends. He attended reunions of yeshiva and college friends without me, which I was more than happy to avoid. I accepted the radio silence of weekends he traveled home for Shabbat, and social media knew nothing of our life together. An outsider might say we lived strangely separate lives, but our deep, day-to-day alliance kept us satisfied.

About eight months into our relationship, I explained to my mom, then my dad, that I’d met someone. “Is he Korean?” they asked. “No,” I said, “he’s white,” P.’s Jewishness being, from their point of view, beside the point. It wasn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t worth a fight, they decided. The dialogue progressed to other (superficial) matters: “What does he do? Where did he go to school?”

P. eventually told his parents. “How’d it go?” I asked when he returned from New Jersey. “Medium bad,” he said, preferring not to discuss it further just then.

He elaborated a few days later: “My dad was more upset than my mom,” he said. And his mom had been inconsolable. “It’s worse that she’s Asian because everyone will know she’s not a Jew,” his father had said. It didn’t help that P.’s younger brother had recently brought home an adorable, quasi-observant Jewish girl.

His dad’s comment—straightforward if clumsily racist—laid bare, for me, the fictional solace of religious conversion. It’s what I’d been telling P. all along: that it wouldn’t be enough to convert, even wholeheartedly. In the skin I’m in, I’d never make an acceptable partner.

Then P. attended the lavish Jewish wedding of his parents’ best friends’ daughter. The bride’s father cornered him during the reception and admonished him for dating me. “You’re making your mom miserable,” he said to P. “Don’t do this to your parents,” he pled.

P. looked destroyed as he narrated the tale, his eyes wet with that brittleness I’d glimpsed over our first glass of wine. “That’s it,” I thought. “My boyfriend, a grown-ass man, didn’t have the wherewithal to walk away from a stranger’s spanking.” I knew he still loved me, but my faith in him was gone. Why couldn’t he take a stand? Would he never introduce me to his family?

The problem with tribalism in love isn’t merely that it’s primitive and outdated, or that racial, ethnic, and religious purity is a myth. What’s most infuriating is that it blinds us to pleasure. We prostrate ourselves before an imagined, unchanging tradition. We surrender to the petty, face-saving concerns of relatives and other “community” members we rarely have to see. Why care what Uncle Jackass has to say about your choices? Why love by committee?

On what I never intended to make our final evening, I left the office early and waited for P. in his apartment. I’d been out of town for almost two weeks and hoped for a happy reunion. But when he came through the door, there was no sweetness in his face or voice, no long-awaited embrace. He looked defeated somehow, as though prepared for our demise.

“It’s over,” I said, and scrambled, instinctively, to pack up my accumulated belongings. He gave me back my keys with a gesture I read as miserable relief.

As we held each other and wept, the shelter we’d erected against the world fell, plank by plank, around us. An ending so inevitable should have been freeing, but I only felt devastation.

“You were always the brave one,” he said. “Not me.”

E. Tammy Kim is an essayist and features staff writer at Al Jazeera America.

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