Monday, August 11, 2008

Travelogue #47: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 1

<---Travelogue #46: A Snapshot of Korean Pop Music, 2008
--->Travelogue #48: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 2

M
ore than forty-eight million people live in South Korea, an East Asian peninsula roughly the size of Indiana.


Of these crowded millions, many go to church; just look at the nighttime sky of Seoul, illuminated by dozens of giant neon crosses promising Sunday salvation. Korea also has a large population of Buddhists and a pervasive sense of Confucianism: you are expected to obey your elders, engage in ritualized politeness,and aspire for "social harmony," no matter what your religious upbringing. Finally, a Muslim minority thrives across the peninsula, numbering anywhere between 40,000 and 100,000, depending on the source. More than five mosques have opened here; that doesn't match the twenty-one in Indiana, but an Islamic presence has nevertheless made a mark.

What's not as evident in the public eye is the existence of a different faith in Korea, one that gives new meaning to the word "minority": Judaism. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute estimates that one hundred Jews live in South Korea. One hundred Jews. That's not many, but it's not bupkes either. Jews in Korea represent a cross-section of foreign businessmen, teachers, and U.S. military personnel. There is no designated synagogue in the country, but there are venues that provide Shabbat services, the most prominent one being the Yongsan Garrison U.S. Army Base in Seoul. Last Friday night, I went to Yongsan to observe Shabbat for the first time since I arrived in Korea last October. What I experienced was a Jewish community unlike any I've ever seen in my life.

By conventional definitions, I'm not a particularly observant Jew. I don't keep kosher, I don't fast on Yom Kippur, and though I eat matzoh during Passover, I also indulge in bread. In January 2007, I went to Israel for ten days; I slipped a note into the the crevices of the Western Wall and felt awed by its spiritual tug. However, when it came time later to write about my Israeli experience, I was more compelled to chronicle the country's pop culture influences and not its sacred monuments. Instead of writing about Jerusalem's Old City, I wrote about an Israeli soldier's affinity for gentile comedian Conan O'Brien.


Last year, I took a job in Korea knowing it not to be a bastion of Jewish life. After all, hagwons are open on Friday nights and Saturday mornings; you can't bless challah when you're on the clock. As the months passed, I couldn't help but feel a hint of sadness at the sight of Jewish holidays unfolding only on a calendar and not in my community. Though I hadn't always strictly honored those holidays in the past, I still found myself feeling their absence in a land where "Shalom" isn't in the vocabulary. It was only a rare hagwon vacation that afforded me a free Friday and a visit to Yongsan. Joining me was Jovan, my Texas-bred friend and co-worker, who was curious about Judaism. She had never before been to a Jewish service, much less one in Korea. I'd be experiencing this night through both my eyes and hers.




"I'm Moshe," said a barrel-chested man with a prominent and crinkled forehead. He shook my hand firmly. "But that's my Jewish name. You can just call me Mo."

Mo would be our escort onto the military base. Because Jovan and I were civilians, we'd need to be accompanied by him, even though we were just there for the service. Already this was portending to be a different kind of Shabbat; I'd never before had to flash my passport and pass through a barbed-wire entrance to christen a night of Torah and gefilte fish.

A crowd of six or seven began to gather outside the base's entrance, and aside from the appearance of one curly-haired Woody Allen lookalike, this Jewish congregation looked overwhelmingly Korean. "Many of them are here to learn," Mo told us, "They're not going to convert, but they like what the Talmud says about how parents should relate to children." Mo then nodded to one older Korean outfitted in a yarmulke, an Argentina soccer jersey, and black pants strung with a gartel. "He did convert," Mo said. "He studied very hard, and it took him a long time."


I was reminded of Larry Milder's jangly tune, "Wherever You Go, There's Always Someone Jewish." Milder sings humorously that, "some Jews wear hats, and some Jews wear sombreros." I think he forgot to add the line, "and some Jews are Korean and wear Argentina soccer jerseys."

<---Travelogue #46: A Snapshot of Korean Pop Music, 2008
Related Post:
American Jewish Life May-June 2007 "Shalom, Snoop"


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