How I made the leap from being Korean to being Jewish

Though there are few practicing Jews in South Korea, the country has a big affinity for Judaism.
Though there are few practicing Jews in South Korea, the country has a big affinity for Judaism.
Image: Reuters/Kim Kyung-Hoon
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It would not be an exaggeration to say that I am the second most prominent Korean Jew in the United States. There’s not too much competition there; I’m surpassed only by undisputed macher of the Korean-Jewish world—Angela Buchdahl, rabbi of the Central Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in New York City.

So when The New Yorker published an article entitled, “How the Talmud Became a Bestseller in South Korea,” about a million people forwarded it to me—and I felt relieved. The New Yorker reports a phenomenon that, at first blush, seems highly irregular: Korea’s immense fascination with Jewish thought, including a Korean classroom that studies the Talmud and engages in “Talmudic debate,” and the popularity of children’s books about Jews, illustrated with oddly anthropological and quaint watercolors.

I might be one of the few people who didn’t find the article hugely shocking. You see, I have been a freak most of my adult life—I am an American of Korean descent. I grew up not just in Seoul but in Gangnam, that seat of privilege that became the subject of parody in Psy’s “Gangnam Style.” My father was an atheist, my mother was Christian. Not one of the notorious born-again Koreans, but rather a Methodist—one of those noncommittal Protestants who think the most important thing in life is being polite and keeping your voice down. There aren’t many Jews in Korea, sources put the figure at between 100 and 500, (though of course there is a Chabad House in Seoul.) I didn’t know much about Jews other than what was in the bible, Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, and the All-of-a-Kind Family children’s book series about Ashkenazi immigrants in New York. And yet, somehow I converted to Judaism (Conservative) in 1998, an event I marked by reading the Torah in Hebrew from the bimah of my synagogue in New York, where I was living at the time.

What the New Yorker article would suggest is something I have felt for years but have never been able to satisfyingly explain: how I made the cognitive leap from being Korean to being Jewish. It’s not as big a leap as people would think. The real story is that it started with reading Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed during my freshman year at Yale. My junior year, I met Elie Wiesel who said: “Euny has a Talmudic mind,” which made me determined to discover what that meant. People find this implausible and dissatisfying. What they wanted to know was…

Why Korea?

The question on the minds of everyone who forwarded me this article was: Why is Korea fascinated with Judaism?

But it’s not that weird, for a number reasons:

  1. As the New Yorker article intimates, part of the Korean fascination with Judaism has to do with the rapidly multiplying Christian evangelical population (29%, up from only 2% in 1945) in South Korea, for whom understanding Judaism is foundational to a true understanding of their own faith.
  2. Part of the Korean admiration for Jews lies in the latter’s secular success, emphasis on education, and sanctity of the family unit.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, written in Russia in the early 20th century for the express purpose of fomenting anti-Semitic feeling in Europe, was a bestseller in Korea (and in Japan) for a number of years. I knew many Korean intellectuals who had it on their shelves, even though the book was a known hoax. The bizarre thing is, Koreans didn’t see the book as an anti-Semitic tract meant to induce fear in gentiles. They saw it as a manual, a model for making one’s way in an uncaring world.

The New Yorker article refers to a list of anti-Semitic nations compiled by a survey from the Anti-Defamation League in which South Korea is said to be 53% anti-Semitic. The flaw in that data, however, is that it did not take into account the fact that Koreans were responding to the questions from a vantage point of philosemitism.

For example, 36% of Korean respondents said they agreed with the statement, “Jews don’t care what happens to anyone but their own kind. Sixty-two percent agreed that “Jews think they are better than other people.” Would you believe me if I said that was meant to be a compliment? These answers are actually consistent with values that Koreans laud.

The odd twinship between South Korea and Israel

First, both nations were founded–in their modern iteration–in 1948. Both nations have long histories of thankless, Job-like suffering. Most people are familiar with Israel’s past, but many do not realize that the Korean peninsula has been invaded and/or colonized 400 times in its 5,000-year history (or so Koreans like to claim).

Both have extremely volatile relationships with their neighbors and very special ties to the US. Both nations have inordinately high tertiary degree holders (masters and PhDs); neither country has any natural resources. Owing to the latter two factors, both countries decided to become IT world capitals. Which is why both nations established enormous government-backed VC funds. Israel’s Yozma group, which bankrolls Israeli startups using largely public funds, inspired a similar fund in Korea. In fact, Yozma’s first-ever campus outside Israel is being built in South Korea.

Life as a Korean Jew in America

Despite all the similarities, I get that it’s still not totally easy understand Korean affinity for Jews.

Because of the seeming oddness, I’m still not forthcoming about my Judaism. When I move to a new city (which happens frequently), I never go to a new synagogue by myself; it’s just too irritating for me to explain why I’m there, and even if people don’t openly ask, I can see and feel the mental energy they need to expend to resist asking me personal questions. I never discuss religion at work, until the very first time I have to whisper to human resources that I need to take off Yom Kippur—after that, it takes only seconds for the whole office to be told, and then I can’t put the shaving cream back into the can. Americans in particular are inordinately insistent that you identify yourself quickly—religion and race become shorthand for everything else.

Then there are the jokes. Oh G-d, the jokes. e.g. “So, for Christmas, do you just eat your own food?” This is a reference to the old American Ashkenazi tradition of eating Chinese food and watching a movie on Christmas. I’m not Chinese, but pointing that out is met with the kind of annoyance you reserve for someone who has no sense of humor. Every December, at least one person posts this photo on Facebook and tags me.

If you must know, I have adopted this Chinese-food-and-movie-at Christmas custom. Not because I’m Korean, but because I’m Jewish.