Kim Jong Il & Hanukkah

Two major events have taken place in the past few days – the death of North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il and my decision to teach my high school students about the Jewish version of Christmas. The reactions to both events by South Koreans has surprised me quite a bit. I’ll begin with Kim Jong Il.

Monday morning, I was sitting in my office perusing Facebook when my good friend and fellow blogger Liza Burkin sent me a Facebook chat informing me of the Dear Leader’s death. I immediately checked every news outlet imaginable to make sure we were thinking of the same Kim Jong Il. It was true. I glanced around my office of about 16 other teachers and no one seemed to be reacting to any shocking news story. I turned to my co-teacher and showed her the homepage of – she slowly read the headline and was totally shocked, and seemed almost skeptical of this English-language website. I then proceeded to show her about 5 other sites, including Korean news outlets, and she was eventually convinced. She told a few other teachers, and soon everyone in the office was laughing. Not because they were rejoicing in the death of their northern enemy’s leader, but because Julia – the foreigner– was the one to bring them this important piece of Korean news. It was a funny moment.

Photo from (English-language South Korean news site.)

Other than that, though, there didn’t really seem to be any strong reaction to the news of Kim’s death. (Although I never really know what is going on around here anyway.) In the past two days, I haven’t picked up on any panic in Korea and I have heard that this is a standard reaction to happenings in North Korea. Fellow English teachers have reported similar reactions at their schools. Last November, after an attack on Yeonpyeong Island just west of Seoul, schools remained open and there was hardly any response to the violent event. A big issue I read about was whether or not South Korea would offer condolences to the north, a dilemma which the US was also facing. Both decided not to, but South Korea did send some delegates to the funeral. I suppose we will all sit back and wait to see how the transition of leadership goes in North Korea. The heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un, seems totally underqualified from everything I’ve read. This article from the New York Post paints an interesting and frankly terrifying portrait of the person who is about to inherit a country currently perusing a nuclear arms program. An interesting time to be living in Korea, indeed.

This week, beginning Tuesday night, marked the beginning of Hanukkah, an 8-night celebration of hope and strength. But of course as we all know, Hanukkah has pretty much become just as commercialized as Christmas. However, I took advantage of Hanukkah as a moment to explain Judaism to my students, a religion none of them had ever heard of. (As of today, I’ve taught my Hanukkah lesson plan to 5 different classes and not one student has heard the word “Jewish” before.) Here is a copy of the PPT I created to explain the Jewish religion and Hanukkah in the most basic, easily-understood way. Thanks to the Hanukkah care package from my awesome Jewish mother, I was able to put menorahs on the desks in the classroom, and teach the students how to play dreidle!

Dreidle in Korea - globalization at its best.

They thoroughly enjoyed the game, especially because copious amounts of candy were involved. Funniest remark of the day in reaction to dreidle: “Julia! This is gambling!” Insightful young ladies I teach. The most fascinating aspect of the lesson, to me, was the fact that none of my students had ever heard of the Holocaust. It was very difficult to time-efficiently explain it to them, and my co-teacher explained to me after class that they do not learn about the Holocaust in high school or even college. At first, I was shocked and appalled – how could such a huge, tragic event in world history be absent from any current history books? A Genocide with a death toll of 11 million seems quite significant to me. But then I thought back to my high school education, and even my university curricula – I never once learned a thing about the Korean War, Korean involvement in WWII, or anything about Buddhism, Taoism, or Confucianism. Very little about anything in Asia at all, to be honest. So why should they know about my people and western history? The purpose of my employment in Korea is becoming more and more clear as the months progress and I realize how vastly different our world’s really are.

Contents of the Hanukkah care package - Hanukkorea has commenced.




  1. Wow! You are truly an amazing teacher…seizing “teachable moments” like crazy…
    You are doing a wonderful job and your students will remember you and your lessons always.
    You go girl!

  2. Chappy Chanukah!!!!!!!!!!! xoxox I like to spell it with the Ch. Sounds like the class is fun for you and your students. Mazel Tov!!

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