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What May Means to Someone Who’s Japanese and Jewish

By June 24, 2022July 12th, 2022No Comments

By Matthew Weisbly

In the United States, we recognize the month of May as Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, as well as Jewish American Heritage Month. For people like me, who are both Asian American (Chinese and Japanese descent) and Jewish American (Ashkenazim), the month is a celebration that encompasses our identity in a unique way and is a reminder of the hardships that both communities have faced over generations and still do today.

JACL/ADL panel participants (from left) Matthew Weisbly, Carmel Tanaka and Tema Smith. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthew Weisbly)

Growing up in Arizona among a small Asian American population (that is now thankfully growing) and an equally small Jewish population, it was hard to see myself in everyday life. Many kids struggle with seeing themselves in popular media and culture, especially in the early to mid-2000s, but even more so for kids who were mixed race and even more so for someone who wasn’t only mixed but was mixed Asian and Jewish.

For a lot of my childhood, I really thought I was the only one like me, aside from my siblings and a few cousins. It wasn’t until I went to college that I found a community for mixed-race students at the University of Southern California. There I found more people who were Asian (mostly Japanese) and Jewish like me.

Then in May 2020, only a few months into the start of the pandemic, I found the Jewpanese community group, started by my friend, Carmel Tanaka. It was a moment I’d dreamt of since I was a kid.

Fast forward to last month, May 2022, and I got to celebrate my identity. As part of my work here at JACL, we were able to partner with our friends at the Anti-Defamation League to celebrate both communities in a unique way and look at the struggles both communities still face.

We started off with a mixer in Los Angeles, where members of the Japanese American and Jewish American communities could meet in an informal space and get to know one another, as well as talk about how great it was for our communities to come together during such a time of celebration and strife.

In mid-May, I was able to head to Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion that I never thought was possible. Myself and my friend, Carmel, not only met for the first time but also were the main speakers for a panel on Japanese and Jewish identity.

I smiled from ear to ear while getting to share my identity. In the few years I’ve been here at JACL (as staff), it’s been the highlight of my time here and something I truly won’t forget anytime soon.

Matthew Weisbly is the education and communications coordinator for the JACL. A former Daniel K. Inouye fellow, he is based in the organization’s Los Angeles office.