Wandering Jew

The last two weeks have been filled with celebrations in Jewish communities all over the world in celebration of the new year, 5772. For those of you who do not know, the Hebrew calendar is a lunar one (and so is the traditional Korean calendar!). While many may think that a Jewess such as myself living outside of New York, Israel, or any other major metropolis in the United States is a strange concept, it is actually quite fitting for me to be settled in Yeoju, South Korea. The Jews are a traditionally nomadic people, hence the popular expression, “wandering Jews,” and the basis of this post’s title. Rosh Hashana (celebrated on September 28th this year, which also happens to be my birthday) marks the beginning of the new year celebration, and Yom Kippur (October 7th this year) ends it–with a service for repentance and a fast.

On this Yom Kippur, I felt a strong desire to connect with my religion and culture in some way. This is the one Jewish holiday that most Jews feel compelled to acknowledge, for whatever reason…perhaps it is a way to remember deceased loved ones, an important tradition, or simply a way for some to rid themselves of that terrible Jewish guilt they’ve been struggling with all year. For me, it was a combination of the aforementioned and a little bit more. I decided to attend services that Friday night at the Chabad House in the Itaewon district of Seoul. (As mentioned in previous posts, Itaewon is the foreigners district.)

The Chabad Lubavitch Jews constitute a Hasidic movement of Orthodox Jews, and is believed to be one of the largest movements today.

The Chabad organization operates out of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and has “homes” set up all over the world: Jackson Hole, Wyoming…Mumbai, India…Madison, Wisconsin…and in Seoul, South Korea! They essentially serve as places where local Jews are able to come and celebrate Jewish holidays with one another, no matter what their level of religiosity is. I became very close with the Chabad house on campus in Madison, Wisconsin, which contributed to my decision to check out the house in Seoul.

I asked to leave school early that day, hopped on a 3:40pm bus to Seoul, and made it to Itaewon by 5:00pm. The tricky part was finding the house. I managed to run into another wandering Jew, who was also a little lost. In Korea, no one really utilizes street names, so it’s very difficult to find ANYTHING. People draw maps, give detailed directions, and use landmarks. So, in situations like this, two heads are better than one. After wandering for a little and asking for directions in mangled Konglish (Korean + English = Konglish), we saw a beacon of hope. In the distance, I saw a few men gathered outside with white splotches on their heads…yarmulkes! (YAH-MUH-KAHS, the head coverings men wear)

I was greeted with warm welcomes and hellos, and instantly felt like I had been transported out of Korea. I’m not quite sure where exactly, I just felt a sense of comfort overwhelm me as I stepped into the house to hear the sounds of children chatting in English and Hebrew, people smiling and greeting one another, and the smell of hundreds of books adorning the bookshelves. I was in Jewishland. For those 3 hours, I listened and tried my best to follow along with the service. At some points, it was just comforting to sit and listen to people singing and praying in a familiar language that I don’t entirely understand. There were about 25 men and 10 women, mostly university professors, other English teachers, university students, or American soldiers. We shmoozed for a little bit after the service, and I left at around 9:00pm. I’m glad I attended this service, and plan to visit Chabad of Seoul again for another holiday or Shabbat service.

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5 comments

  1. So cool you found the Chabad there. I love the description you give about the the Jewish new year at the beginning. I can hear your voice so well in your writing. I never attended anything Jewish in Nigeria but really wish I took time to seek it out because I know it would be similar to what you experienced, totally random but comforting. I sure did get my fill of Christianity though. Speaking of Judaism, we will miss you at Alison’s Shabbat dinner tomorrow!!

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