The One Jew in Wonju

Abraham J. Riesman ’08 shares conversations conducted as a ‘stranger in a strange land’

I’m reasonably certain that one reason the Harvard Korea Institute was so willing to give me a fat wad of cash for thesis research in Korea was the fact that I’m a lily-white Jew. Such people don’t usually go to Korea, so how could the Institute pass up such a public-relations coup?

By choosing to go to that little peninsula dangling between China and Japan, I had chosen to uproot myself. During my three months in Korea this summer, if there’s one thing I learned, it’s this: I don’t want to live in a world without Jews.

Go ahead and laugh, but I’m as serious as a heart attack. No offense to the Koreans, but they’re not my family, and I was in a country where familial ties are vital. I found myself—an agnostic half-Jew, at best—quoting Exodus 2:22 for comfort: “I have been a stranger in a strange land.”

But while dwelling in a land without my people, I participated in three conversations about Judaism that are lodged in my brain. I offer them here, not to teach a lesson or recount any epiphanies (I didn’t have any), but to provoke questions that might lack answers. Please feel free to contact me if you can figure out what they mean, because I sure as hell don’t.


WE FEEL YOUR PAIN

I hate to generalize, but I’m pretty sure most of my Korean friends would agree with me when I say that Koreans have issues when it comes to Japan.

In case you’re not boned up on your Korean history, the country was under various forms of Japanese control from 1905 to 1945. I am in no way qualified to offer an unbiased summary of what occurred in those four contentious decades.

That lack of qualification got me in trouble.

I was in a coffee shop, talking to a Korean girl I’d befriended. She was angry about that day’s lecture in Summer School (it was a joint program with a Korean university), because she thought our professor went too easy on the Japanese. “I dunno,” I said, “I thought he was pretty balanced.”

“Look,” she said, staring me in the eye. “What happened to the Koreans during the Japanese colonial time? It’s the same thing as what happened to the Jews with Hitler.”

Now, I’m not one of those folks who goes out of his way to say that the Holocaust was history’s worst crime against humanity, but I had to cry foul. “Wait a second,” I replied. “The Japanese did some terrible things, but they didn’t systematically kill millions of Koreans. You can say things were better or worse, or whatever, but not that it was the same thing.”

She paused. “You know, I don’t really know much about the, the Holocaust—that’s the name for it, right?” she said. “Actually, can I ask you some questions?”

The next 20 minutes were surreal. Question after question came from her mouth, and they ranged from the astonishingly easy to answer (“Was Hitler the only one who hated the Jews?”) to the impossible (“Why did people hate the Jews?”).

I guess explaining the enigma of Judaism to a 21-year-old who knows nothing about it (other than knee-jerk Holocaust invocations) is sort of like teaching a new language to a 40-year-old. You have to be indoctrinated while you’re young.


PACK UP AND LEAVE

“I’ve heard that, if all the Jews all took their things away from America and moved away, that America would collapse. Like, its economy.”

A high school student said that to me while I was doing research at an elite private academy, hidden in the hills of Gangwon Province. The nearest town, Wonju, was a 30-minute drive away. He, like my previously mentioned friend, was trying to squeeze me for information about what Jews were, exactly.

“Okay. First things first,” I said. “I know you’re trying to get into an American college, so once you get there, don’t ever say the statement you just made. It’ll get you into trouble.”

But I had difficulty explaining why, exactly, his assertion wasn’t true. “For one thing, Jews aren’t part of some kind of centralized organization,” I said. “We don’t all have some kind of Jewish leader who tells us what to do, so I don’t think we would ever do anything as ‘all the Jews’ together.” I went on to explain that Jews are not unified by any one ethnicity, language, or even one faith, necessarily.

“So, you’re not one group? How do you call yourselves ‘Jews,’ then? Like, Koreans think of themselves as a group, because I guess we all have the same bloodline and language and we’re all from the same place. How can Jews think of themselves as a group?”

I didn’t know how to answer him.


THE LONE STRANGER

I only met one Jew in Korea.

He was a teacher at the aforementioned school. He was born in Britain, lived most of his life in South America, and had become a nationalized citizen of Korea. He spoke like a rabbi, answering my questions about his life story with more questions (“How does anyone end up anywhere?”). He wore his yarmulke proudly amongst people who did not understand it. And to me, he was like some strange hallucination.

He embraced me. Literally. I never met a single Korean, even among my closest friends, who would touch me or hug me. But he would grab me by the shoulders when he saw me and say, “Hello, my friend! You are still here, I see?”

I interviewed him for my thesis, but we quickly got off-topic. “What is a Jew?” he asked me.

I was stymied. “Ah, well, if I knew the answer to that, I would be a wiser man than I am tod—,” I began, but he cut me off.

“Oh, don’t give me that bullshit,” he said in his unplaceable accent. “You want to know what Israel is, to me? It’s not a country, it’s not a place. It’s my wife. My wife is Israel. Do you understand?”

His wife is Korean. This man is a Jew. And a Korean. He doesn’t know a single ethnic or religious Jew within hundreds of miles of where he lives. But he lives with Israel every day.

So if Israel can be anywhere and Jews can be anyone, then why was I so lonely?

I know it’s bullshit, but I have only this to say to you: If I knew the answer to that, I would be a wiser man than I am today.

—Abe J. Riesman is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy House. He is not the only Jew at Harvard.