I was sipping tea with a South Korean friend of my father’s when he asked: “Do you go to church?” It’s a much more common getting-to-know-you question in Korea than in the north-eastern United States, so I replied: “I actually don’t go to church, I’m Jewish.” When the oohs and ahs from members of the family, who were thrilled to learn I was part of the tribe, had subsided, 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 remarkably strong similarities to Korean culture.
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 world. She says: “Jews and Koreans have a lot of shared values: education, value of history, respecting our ancestry and passing on traditions. I think Koreans especially admire the way Jews have kept a distinct culture over years of diaspora life.”
Many Koreans would be surprised to learn that there is a Jewish population in South Korea, albeit a small one. The exact number is hard to say, but anywhere from 500–600 is the general estimate.
Rabbi Osher Litzman heads up Seoul’s Chabad House. He says that Jews in South Korea are well established, and have professions ranging “from ambassadors and diplomats to CEOs, ESL teachers, students and members of the US military”.
In March this year, Chabad celebrated a milestone 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. The event began with a ceremony at the Seoul Grand Hyatt, which included powerful remarks from Israeli Ambassador Tuvia Israeli. The celebrations continued into the streets with a parade through the city and revellers singing and dancing with the new Torah. They ended up at the Chabad House for dancing and l’chaims, rivalling any night out in Seoul.
Julia Bass is a freelance journalist currently living in South Korea.
A longer version of this article originally appeared in Seoulist Magazine in May 2012