Friday, August 15, 2008

Travelogue #48: Shabbat Shalom - Jewish Korea on a Friday Night, Part 2

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

inutes later, we were led onto base and into a multipurpose sanctuary. Tonight it'd be used for a Jewish service; perhaps on Sunday it would be used for a Christian one. This dual spirituality came to light through one of the members of our congregation: a priest by the name of Father O'Neill. "Great to see you, Rabbi," he told Chaplain Avi Weiss in a rosy baritone of a voice. "Thank you for joining us, Father," responded Rabbi Weiss.

As the service began, additional visitors came into the chapel. I was struck by one particular moment when a soldier in full military garb walked into the sanctuary, peeled off his beret, and replaced it with a yarmulke. I smiled at the symbolic switch: before a soldier, and now a Jew.

The attendees on this Friday night could be reduced to no statistic or stereotype. In the second row sat a well-dressed man with the silver-haired stature of a CIA character from The Bourne movies. No wonder, this guy was the real thing: he works for the U.S. Department of Defense. In another pew sat a Korean teenager wearing skinny jeans. Behind me sat a black general from West Virgina, the rabbi's commander in the military order. "Thank you for letting me pray with ya'll," said the general. "I am humbled." Beside me Jovan flipped through the Hebrew Bible, catching on quickly to the whole pages-turn-backwards element of the exercise. Rabbi Weiss conducted the service more like a class than a lecture, asking us to read passages and answer questions. As I hummed along to the Shabbat hymns, I felt at once reconnected to my Jewish identity and, strangely, reminded of my distance from it.

My knowledge of biblical history is at best scattershot, and I long ago forgot the Hebrew I learned for my Bar Mitzvah Torah portion. To me, Judaism is about family and loved ones. Singing those Friday night songs in a sanctuary largely full of strangers, I felt the presence of memories oceans and years away. I felt the shadows of a once-upon-a-time girlfriend and a Rosh Hashana afternoon in a South Carolina synagogue. I felt shadows of my mom and my dad, humming prayers and patting me lightly on the shoulder, knowing my eleven-year-old mind was mulling more the Chicago Bulls than Deuteronomy. I felt the presence of these shadows, and I felt far, far away from home.

"Who says there's no Jews in the South?" said Father O'Neill, grinning like St. Nick. The service had just ended, and we were walking towards the dining room to bless the bread and ceremoniously nosh on it. When I told Father O'Neill that my home was Memphis, Tennessee, he told me with great relish that, several years ago, he had seen a terrific PBS special on the Southern Jews of the United States. "Fascinating," he said in conclusion, "absolutely fascinating." I nodded good-naturedly, thinking this was a unique moment in my Korea experience: someone was tailoring his conversation towards my Jewishness, rather than my status as a waygook (foreigner) or a megook (American). Shabbat Shalom, Father.

After the blessings over the bread and the wine, I casually tried to introduce Jovan to gefilte fish, a squiggly gelatin-like treat that tastes pleasantly gooey but is not particularly gorgeous. She declined it, but remained positively open-minded in much of her first Shabbat encounter. After hearing that the Rabbi's wife had just visited a daughter in Israel and that said daughter had recently given birth to twins, Jovan almost said, "Mazel Tov!" Almost.

"Does that mean 'congratulations'?" she asked me later. "Yeah," I said, "you should have said it! That would have been cool."
"I wasn't sure if it was right," Jovan remarked, "I mean, I only saw people say that on TV."

After the meal, Mo returned to walk us off the base. I told him how I read that only one hundred Jews lived in South Korea, and did he think the real number was more or fewer? "I think it's more than that," Mo said, "There's the Israeli embassy in Seoul. Lots of Israelis there. But they have their own Shabbat thing. They don't come to the base." Mo also told us how, in April, a Chabad chapter opened in Itaewon, and its director is keen on expanding. "They run things from a small apartment now, but he's on a mission," Mo chuckled. "He's on a mission."

I don't think I'll be part of that mission, for I'll return to the United States in late October. But I still wish the Jewish hundred (+) in Korea a hearty good luck, and in the words of the Korean man in the Yankees hat after Friday's service, a "Good Shabbos."

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



Shoshana said...

Somehow. even with you in South Korea and me in the wild backwoods of Pennsylvania, you have managed to have a more Jewish experience than me. I guess bears and bats don't make a good congregation.

And I don't blame your friend for not trying the gefilte fish - I refuse it every Rosh Hashannah.

Melanie Ehrlich said...

만나지 않은 것 같아서 아쉽다~ Wow, I don't believe I met you, what a shame! I try to make a point of meeting everyone I can who comes to services either on the base or at Chabad. I actually know exactly where I was that Shabbos, as I left for three weeks in America and Japan that following Thursday, so I spent that Shabbos at the home of some good friends I have in Itaewon...but that's neither here nor there. I suppose you're back in America now, right? Is it weird being back after being in Korea for so long?

Your take on the Jewish scene in Korea mirrors much of my own thoughts about it. It really is very interesting, isn't it?

If you're still in Korea, let me know! There's a chill Jewish community here that's really grown and taken shape in the past few months, LOTS of English teachers coming out of the woodwork. Only one other Korean student though, and no other voiceover actors yet >_< We have a Facebook group here:

If you're not...well, enjoy the land of mayonnaise-free pizza and electric clothes dryers :)