I was sipping on some tea with a Korean friend of my father’s who had invited me over to introduce me to his family. The usual small talk ensued, from college studies to adjusting to life in Korea. He then asked what I like to do on the weekends and added, “Do you go to church?” It’s a much more common getting-to-know-you question in Korea than in the northeastern United States, and I was at first a bit flustered but soon remembered that I am a guest in this country. I calmly replied, “I actually don’t go to church, I’m Jewish.” Before opening my mouth, I wasn’t sure exactly what kind of reaction this answer would provoke. Would he understand me? Would it make him uncomfortable? But I was pleasantly surprised by the joyful outcry of oohs and aahs from all members of the family, who were thrilled to learn I was a member of the tribe. My father’s friend proclaimed, “I forgot your dad is Jewish! Koreans are the Jews of Asia!”
This family’s reverence for the chosen people is representative of a small but growing Korean interest in Jewish culture and its shockingly strong similarities to Korean culture. When I tell coworkers about my Jewish background, they usually just smile and nod, the same way my students react when they don’t fully understand me. But many are picking up on the fact that these two ethnic groups share many cultural values, such as the overpowering importance of filial bonds and education. Let me put it this way: a PTA meeting filled with tiger moms and Jewish mothers would be a scary place.
The Korean fascination with Judaism goes beyond comparing and contrasting, with many individuals reading up on the people of the book. Tim Alper explains in the Jewish Chronicle that the Talmud, a centuries-old religious book that examines the Torah, is “a bestseller in South Korea—even the government insists it is good for you, and has included it on the curriculum for primary school children.” While Korea may not be a “hotbed of latent Judaism”—with droves of people converting to the religion, for example—the same Korean tiger moms who send their children to late-night hagwon are fascinated by the disproportionate number of successful Jews, whose total population is just .02% of the world population.
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl works at Central Synagogue in New York City, and her vast knowledge of Judaism is helpful in understanding this phenomenon. She is half Korean, making her the only Korean Rabbi in the universe, and #29 on The Daily Beast’s most influential rabbis of 2012. Buchdahl says, “Jews and Koreans have a lot of shared values: education, value of history and respecting our ancestry and view of passing on traditions that make us particular and unique. I think Koreans especially admire the way Jews have kept a distinct culture over years of diaspora life.” And over the years, reconciling her identities has confirmed the cultural compatibility: “When I was younger, I thought that if I was more Jewish, I was somehow less Korean. And if I felt more Korean, it meant I was less Jewish. The identities seemed to compete. As I got older I came to see how they are inextricably together and inform the other. I see the world as a Jew, with a Korean/Buddhist lens.”
Many Koreans would be surprised to learn that there is a Jewish population in South Korea, albeit a small one. Exactly how many diasporic Jews are roaming the streets of Seoul and the rest of Korea today? The exact number is hard to say, but anywhere from 500–600 is the general estimate, a population difficult to chart because not all Jews choose to traditionally observe the religion. But for those Jew-ish Jews looking to spin a dreidel on Hanukah or seeking advice from a rabbi, there is an active, thriving Jewish community in Seoul. Jews have gathered at the Yongsan military base for many years, led by volunteers who organize events and conduct services. Joshua Janove, the current lay leader for Yongsan’s Jewish community, says that many of the Jews currently living in Korea are from Israel. There are about ten people who actively attend Friday night Shabbat services on the army base, and even a handful of Koreans who attend in order to learn more about the roots of their Christianity.
Since 2008, the city of Seoul has had its very own “Chabad House,” a Jewish Community Center led by Hasidic Rabbi Osher Litzman and his family from Israel. The Chabad Lubavitch movement is a branch of Hasidism (ultra-orthodox Judaism) that originated in the 18th century. Today, there are over 4,000 Chabad Houses worldwide, creating and serving Jewish communities wherever they may be. There are 13 Chabad Rabbis in China alone, 10 in Thailand, and representatives in Vietnam, Taiwan, Cambodia, and Japan. The Litzmans welcome Jewish people of all practicing levels and languages and are eager to provide diasporic Jews with a warm community. Rabbi Litzman describes the types of Jews in Korea as diverse, with professions ranging “from ambassadors and diplomats (Israeli, Canadian, Swiss and American) to CEOs (KEB, GGGI and more), to ESL teachers, students, and US military servicemen.”
As Korea’s only resident rabbi, he adds that “we have many Koreans who are contacting us with questions about Judaism and we do our best to help them. Unfortunately converting to Judaism is not possible in Korea, but we know of Koreans who go to the US to have the conversion.” One step in the conversion process is spending time with a Jewish family for about one year, simply impossible to do in Korea. In addition, there is no mikvah in Korea—a bath used for ritual purposes in Judaism, including during conversion ceremonies. (No, jimjilbang don’t count.)
Faina Stolerman, an English teacher in Seoul and frequent Chabader, explains, “Everyone is welcome at Chabad, no matter how religious you are, and this is what I love about it. Engaging in thought-provoking discussions with Rabbi Litzman, meeting Jews from all walks of life, and Friday night services have become a great part of my life in Korea.” The center also operates a Kosher foods store (soon to be online!), provides free Kosher meals to visitors on a daily basis, and frequently caters events for the Israeli embassy.
On March 4th, Chabad celebrated a milestone event in Korea’s Jewish life by dedicating the first-ever Sefer Torah—a handmade Torah scroll from Israel—made specifically for the Korean Jewish community. I had the opportunity to experience this truly unique event firsthand, from the ceremony at the Seoul Grand Hyatt to the parade through Seoul, ending with a party at the Chabad House. We began by schmoozing and eating, as all Jewish events must, and members of the community were given the opportunity to have a letter from their Hebrew name inscribed in the final passage of the Torah scroll. Israeli Ambassador Tuvia Israeli made a few powerful remarks about the historic event, noting that the next step for Seoul’s Jewish community is the creation of a functioning synagogue, since Chabad operates out of a house and the army base Jews make do with the military’s Christian chapel space. Chabad rabbis from other Asian countries were in attendance as well, and spoke about the success of Jewish communities throughout Asia, thanks to the global Chabad community. The event continued into the streets of Seoul, with attendees parading through the city, singing and dancing with the new Torah. We ended up at the Chabad House for a raucous dance party, rivaling any night out in Hongdae or Itaewon, filled with L’Chaims and booze.
While Chabad has helped foster a community for Jewish people in Korea, life as a Jew in most Asian countries can be difficult. Finding matzah on Passover, Kosher red wine, or explaining to your boss why you need to leave early on Yom Kippur can be difficult in a place where practicing Judaism is a relatively new concept. As a high school English teacher in a rural Korean city, I was faced with the task of explaining why I do not celebrate Christmas to my students and co-workers, and decided to create a fun-filled educational lesson on Hanukah and Judaism. The wide range of reactions from my Korean teenagers surprised me. Most were eager to know more about me and the strange candelabras I had placed on their desks, and some even approached me after class with more questions about the Hebrew language and my curly brown hair. Some had a vague idea about the Old Testament and the religion still following its teachings, while others had never even heard of the Holocaust. While this totally shocked me, I had to remind myself of the fact that I never learned a thing about the Korean War in school or Japanese occupation during WWII. Still, they were enraptured by the fact that a seemingly normal 23-year-old American did not celebrate the holiday of all holidays, and wanted to know why.
Until 1948, Jewish people had no country of their own. If you take look at Jewish history, you’ll notice that it always involves this small ethnic minority trying to make life work in host cities and countries around the world—Europe, South America, the United States—there are communities of Jews sprinkled across the globe. Sometimes reactions to members of the tribe are harsh. (Exhibit A: the Holocaust.) But Jewish people have been nothing but welcomed amongst Koreans, one of the world’s biggest diasporic ethnicities itself. Although it may be hard to find kosher kimchi or get a day off on Passover, it’s no surprise that Jewish people have been able to establish a grounded community in the land of the morning calm.