When Wendell Gee goes Israeli folk dancing, he leaves part of his shy Clark Kent personality behind. He leaps around the room to the latest Israeli pop hits, holding hands with other dancers in a tightly packed circle. He asks women to dance, quivering with anxiety and excitement as he leads his partners through the set.

Gee, who is Chinese and of slight build, doesn’t do any other form of social dancing. He started Israeli dancing as a form of religious expression, and he occasionally wears a kippah — one of the only men in the dance group to do so. He’s an Orthodox Jew, a Jew-by-choice who converted three years ago.

In the Bay Area, Asians are the second largest ethnic group following Latinos. Nobody knows the number of Asian Jews since Jewish organizations have not tracked them. But given the high rates of intermarriage (approximately 50 percent of Jews marrying today) and adoption of babies from China, it seems a safe assumption that people who are Asian and also Jewish will not be as much of an anomaly in the future.

At the moment, even in the politically aware Bay Area, people still scratch their heads when confronted with the reality of multiculturalism.

“I’ll get, ‘You’re not Jewish. Are you really Jewish?’ Things of that nature. They’re really surprised,” says Gee, who lives in Fremont. When he applied for a job at a local Safeway and told them that he needed Friday sunset to Saturday sunset off for Shabbat, the hiring manager was incredulous.

“Asian Jews are not really on people’s radar screen at the moment,” says Patricia Lin, a scholar-in-residence at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley. Lin herself is of Taiwanese descent and converted to Judaism as an adult. “If I was white, they wouldn’t assume that I wasn’t Jewish. It’s an ignorance, because the community of Jews in the world has always been very diverse. In America, it is this overwhelming belief that Jews all come from Eastern Europe — even within the Jewish community.”

But Lin herself was surprised to find out how many Asian Jews there are in America. She is currently conducting a yearlong, nationwide survey of Asian American Jewry, and has heard from 400 respondents across the United States who are Jewish as a result of interfaith marriages, adoption and conversion.

Lin came to Judaism in search of a meaningful religious practice. She had tried Buddhism but couldn’t relate. “Meditation didn’t match my personality — my questioning and challenging.” On the other hand, the Jewish idea of wrestling with God and “not accepting everything” resonated with her academic mindset.

Now she is an active member at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco. She occasionally co-leads services, and she speaks with an intensity that must also be helpful for commanding the attention of undergraduates at U.C. Berkeley, where she teaches history and international area studies courses. Recently, she and the rabbi conducted a baby-naming at Sha’ar Zahav. It was a memorable experience for Lin, who changed her own legal name to Patricia Yu Chava Esther Lin, after “two strong women in the Bible.”

From time to time, Lin has to negotiate the apparent conflicts between Judaism and the traditions of her family. At her grandmother’s funeral in Los Angeles, she was unsure about whether to bow in front of her grandmother’s picture, as is customary in the Asian tradition of ancestor worship.

“In Judaism you’re not supposed to bow down and worship [things other than God],” Lin says. “But I decided that in the Ten Commandments, the most important thing is to honor your family. So I bowed to the picture to honor my grandmother and my mom.”

Lin also interprets the dietary rules in a way that makes sense to her. She refrains from eating pork in most circumstances, and won’t order a ham sandwich. But she’ll eat pork dim sum, familiar food from her childhood, when she’s with her parents. “It’s about honoring my family and my culture,” she says. “It’s important to me to balance the two sides.”

Part of the motivation behind Lin’s current research is to make it easier for other Asian Jews to embrace both their ethnicity and their religion. She is trying to get funding to publish her results, and she hopes that her findings will make the Jewish community more welcoming to others like her.

Regardless of whether they were raised Jewish or chose the faith, Asian Jews have had to cope with both the Jewish and wider community’s perception of who is Jewish, a perception that is often based on appearance.

“People assume a lot about me,” says Josh Knoll of Fresno. Knoll is Vietnamese but was raised Jewish by his adoptive family in California. “It’s kind of weird to really stand out in temple, where 95 percent of the eyes are automatically on you.”

Members of the congregation occasionally asked his parents if he was their guest. Knoll also got “the dirtiest looks” from Orthodox Jews when he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem as a college student.

The Bay Area is more accepting of those who don’t fit the mold, says Alison Wong of San Francisco, who has a Jewish mother and a Chinese dad. Raised in Berkeley, she attended college on the East Coast and spent another five years in New York.

“The Jewish community there is very tight-knit, very white, and people’s parents care if they marry Jewish people,” she says. “I passed on a technicality, but I always felt that if I said my mom was Chinese, they would tell me I wasn’t Jewish in a second.”

Both Knoll and Wong say they identify culturally as Jewish, but they are ambivalent about their formal religious affiliation and whether they want to be part of a congregation.

“It’s not about the religion, it’s the culture,” says Knoll. “There’s something about Jewish families getting together and enjoying holidays and food — it’s loud, it’s boisterous, it’s not repressed.”

Others of Asian ancestry also describe the Jewish culture as a good match. A resident of Marin, Jacqueline Swoiskin is a third-generation Californian with a Cantonese paternal grandfather named Deng, which her father’s generation altered to Dunn, her maiden name. Swoiskin’s mother, who is half Cantonese, half Spanish, raised Jackie and her three siblings Catholic.

Growing up in Fresno, Swoiskin thought of herself as white. It wasn’t until she went to U.C. Berkeley that she began to get an appreciation for her Asian roots. To explore her Chinese background, she took a job as a tour director in China, where she was responsible for leading groups of American tourists — including many New York Jews.

“They were very vocal and opinionated,” says Swoiskin, laughing at the memory. “They knew what they wanted, but they had a humor about it. I liked their assertiveness, which wasn’t [a characteristic I found] in the Asian community.”

Later on, after Swoiskin returned to the States, she decided she wanted to meet a Jewish guy and subscribed to the then-Jewish Bulletin for the personals. She met Mark, a psychiatrist, and formally converted to Judaism a year after they were married.

On a recent Saturday, the family gathers at Jackie’s sister’s Los Altos home for a jiaozi party, making the Chinese boiled dumplings together. Swoiskin pleats thin wrappers around ground chicken and vegetables — a non-traif version of the traditional pork filling. A stream of giggling children runs through the house, including two young Swoiskins. Aaron Li, 5, has his mother’s dark hair and looks Mediterranean. His sister, Chloe Lin, 2, has dark, almond-shaped eyes which are a startling contrast to her light ringlets.

“Why would you want to be part of a minority group?” Swoiskin says. “It’s this funny juxtaposition: being persecuted but being fiercely proud of who you are. But not publicly so — among Jewish people is this secret love of being Jewish. I’m so drawn to that.”

Swoiskin, like others interviewed, points to the great importance that both Asian and Jewish cultures place on education and the family as a point of connection. Albert Dien, president of the Menlo Park based Sino-Judaic Institute, says, with only part of his tongue in his cheek: “They both have the guilt-trips, where the children feel they owe so much to the parents.”

Dien also points to the common immigrant experience. “The young Asians so much resemble the young second-generation Jews from a generation before — there’s so much striving to be excellent.”

And according to Wendy Abraham, associate director at Center for Buddhist Studies at Stanford, whose scholarly research focuses on the Chinese Jews of Kaifeng, there’s an underlying philosophical affinity. “[As with Judaism], the Confucian emphasis is on person-to-person ethics, rather than an emphasis on the hereafter.”

Says Wendell Gee: “Judaism makes you more aware of little things, and how much there is to be thankful for — there's a blessing for everything.” He always makes time to observe Shabbat on Friday evenings, lighting the candles and breaking challah that he has baked himself.

Apart from dancing, he is too busy to have much of a social life at the moment, between working a full-time job and finishing a degree in electrical engineering.

He hopes to be able to celebrate Shabbat with a Jewish wife someday, but he isn’t sanguine. “I think my Asian background will be a hindrance. Most people want to marry someone of their own race.”

In the meantime, he’s helping to change the idea that Asians can’t be Jews. To those who are skeptical, “I’ll explain some part of the belief system … and I’ll tell them I do Israeli dance. That’s another big surprise, because I don’t look like a dancer … obviously dancing’s not part of my background, ” he says, laughing.