Seoulist’s latest story is called “Shalom, Seoul!” by Julia Bass. It’s a wonderful, thoughtful essay on Koreans’ love of Judaism, the similarities between these seemingly different cultures, and the Jewish community within Korea. I commend Julia for all the research and energy that went into the article — magnificent, Julia!
I am especially partial to this piece because I actually got to be a part of it. When I expressed interest in the subject (I have a certain fondness for Jewish culture, though I’m not Jewish), Julia graciously invited me to a very special event celebrating the arrival of a handmade Torah scroll from Israel. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and it’s safe to say I never dreamed the night would turn out the way it did. I will always treasure the memory of getting jiggy with the Jews at one of the most happinest house parties in Seoul.
Technically, I was a little late to the ceremony, but I arrived just in time to see a parade of torch-carrying, bell-jingling, bearded men singing and dancing in the streets. It was raucous and joyful, not the somber and serious pageant I was expecting. I was intrigued! I followed the procession to the Chabad House, where Rabbi Osher Litzman and his family started handing out shots and leading boisterous chants in Hebrew. Suddenly, the whole house erupted into a dance party (men and women separated by a folding screen, of course!), and some women grabbed my hands and insisted I put down my camera and join the dance circle. The whole atmosphere was permeated with love, acceptance, and most of all rapturous cheer. There were several moments I looked around in surprise and thought, “Wow, church sure wasn’t like this.”
I learned a lot that night about Judaism — the differences between the ultra-orthodox Hasidic branch and the more moderate Reform bunch, what exactly is and isn’t kosher (though I’m still figuring that one out), and how they make that “ch” sound at the back of the throat. But the most memorable lesson I learned from the night I got down with members of the tribe was about the importance of celebration. These were some of the most devout, disciplined people I’ve ever met, and they were also some of the happiest. They both respected and reveled in their religion, and their rowdy reverence was a beautiful sight.