Euny Hong's Hebrew Seoul
Korean-American author Euny Hong’s journey to conversion began with Maimonides after reading “The Guide for the Perplexed” during a freshman-year course at Yale. With two Korean parents, her father secular and her mother Methodist, Hong grew up in a Chicago suburb before moving to Seoul when she was 12 years old.
In early August, eight years after her debut novel “Kept” (2006), Hong, 41, released her second book. “The Birth of Korean Cool” (Picador) is a witty chronicle of how pop culture shaped South Korea’s meteoric rise from a war-torn nation to a technological giant.
Hong spoke recently to the Forward’s Seth Berkman about the challenges Korean Jews encounter in America, the similarities between Israel and South Korea, and her friendship with another prominent Korean Jew, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl.
Seth Berkman: How do you know Angela Buchdahl?
Euny Hong: We were in the same dorm, basically, for three years. She doesn’t seem to remember this, but one of the first conversations I ever had about converting to Judaism was with her.
You moved to Korea in 1985. What are the main differences in Korea today?
Basically now it looks like the capital city from “The Hunger Games” and all that implies, including the technological jaw-dropping wonders and their opulence, decadence and extreme wealth. In 1985, the thing that kind of is the most visceral in memory has to do with defecation. It seemed really uncivilized and very barbaric, and it was very common to be in a taxi and then the cab driver stops, you don’t really know why, and he goes over to the wall by the side and pees because, I don’t know, why wouldn’t you pee against the wall? And then he comes back into the taxi and says nothing and keeps driving.
Even as late as 1985, you could still tell that it was a place that had a gigantic civil war 30 years earlier. Psychologically that was the case. Everybody wanted the dream of going to America, and there were all kinds of counterfeit American stuff.
How long had you been thinking about writing this book?
I never wanted to write a book about Korea. I lived in Korea during my whole teenage years. But the “Gangnam Style” [song] thing started. Then I mentioned to an editor, “Oh yeah, I grew up in Gangnam.” She practically went into hysterics. I wasn’t convinced it was going to be interesting to people. As I found again and again as a writer, when you’re completely honest about something, people respond to that.
Do you see any similarities between Korean culture and American Jewish culture?
I would say yes, but not as many as people think. When the question of my conversion comes up, I get every joke you could possibly think of — “You’re going to have a kid who becomes a doctor at age 11.” The idea [was] that I was making a super-compressed kind of success accelerator by virtue of being both Korean and Jewish.
There’s emphasis on education being more important than absolutely anything. But there are a lot of differences. One really big one is the role of women in the family. Things are changing now in Korea. Korean women are more educated than Korean men now. Because of selective abortions, there are not enough girls. So by necessity, women are a lot better treated and men naturally adapt to be a little nicer to get a girl interested in them. But I would say for the most part, the mother’s role is much more subdued than in a typical Ashkenazi family. It is okay — not stereotypically, but in practice — for the American Ashkenazi female to be opinionated and express her opinion. In Korea, there’s still kind of like this thing: They’re not supposed to be really loud in terms of values, not supposed to want to have the last word, and they get really annoyed if a woman is right. People often say, “Aren’t Korean mothers just like Jewish mothers?”No, they’re not, at all.
You’ve written about Jewish issues while living in France. Did your Jewish identity change at all while there?
I basically had to suspend religion for six years. It’s the only country I know of where the word “secular” appears in the first sentence of the constitution of the country. You just could not really talk about your religion or ask people what synagogue, what church do you go to. France is not very Ashkenazi, and that was the only form of Judaism I was familiar with. It was the first time I was heavily exposed to Sephardic culture. I was totally discouraged from going to their services. In France that’s pretty much the norm — women are always in the balcony. I was like, I’m not down with this; it’s not worth it unless I start my own synagogue.
You wrote about how you didn’t feel accepted in your New York synagogue at one point. Can you talk about being a Korean Jew in New York and it being something people constantly question?
This is why I think Angela Buchdahl is the bravest person I know. She could easily have avoided all of this, but she threw herself into it. It’s just not easy. You just don’t know what d–ks people can be until you actually start to have something in common with them or try to. I consider myself Jewish now still, but part of that is because I’ve been Jewish for a long time, so the fact that I don’t practice very much doesn’t really diminish my sense of Jewish identity. Emotionally, I still respond to Jewish issues very much as a Jew.
During the process of conversion and for the first few years, it almost was not worth it. I was younger and more tolerant. I was not the kind of person who would just walk away because of being insulted or whatever. Generally, the more religious somebody was, the more accepting they were. I had very positive experiences in Modern Orthodox synagogues, for example. If you go to an Orthodox synagogue, even if you don’t look Jewish, they kind of assume there must be a reason that you’re there. At a Reform synagogue or Conservative synagogue, which is what I converted to, they’re just very suspicious because there are so many people who go to shul and aren’t religious; a lot of them don’t even want to be there themselves unless it’s the High Holidays. So they’re suspicious of anyone who wants to be there who doesn’t have to be there. A lot of it, frankly, is self-hatred. “If you want to be like me, there must be something seriously wrong with you” kind of thing. I think it’s really unfortunate I had to see that side of people. It’s definitely something I’m still not okay with.
There was originally a part in your book about Israel that you took out?
Korea and Israel both started in 1948. They both had to build a government right away; they had no trained politicians really. They didn’t have national anthems, so they broke up songs that were pre-existing. The Korean national anthem is set to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne.” That’s just an example of how improvisational everything had to be.
They both decided we want to be like the second Silicon Valley, the center of biotech, the center of stem-cell research. But they didn’t have time to wait for this organically. They really had to push it and create it. Both governments were able to immerse billions of dollars of tax money and invest and make this a startup-friendly country. I wouldn’t say necessarily Korea and Jews have a lot in common, but Korea and Israel have a lot in common.
They have no natural resources. All they have is human capital, a really, really highly educated population that’s really literate. That’s their trump card. So they solely invested in their people.
Both countries have a relationship with the U.S. that is very special. Israel’s surrounded by people who hate them, and [in Korea] you have the craziest person in the entire world north of the border.
Bad things happen when you try to let things just happen. You can’t be passive. So as countries they’re really, really aggressive. They’re both going to rule the world, I think. Mark my words, China is nothing. I think South Korea and Israel are going to be the countries of the 21st century.
This article has been edited for style and length.
"I push wagons, I work with a shovel, I turn rotten in the rain, I shiver in the wind; already my own body is no longer mine: my belly is swollen, my limbs emaciated, my face is thick in the morning, hollow in the evening; some of us have yellow skin, others grey. When we do not meet for a few days we hardly recognize each other."— Primo Levi, "Survival in Auschwitz"
"This holiday we take for ourselves, no longer silent servers behind the curtain, but singers of the seder, with voices of gladness, creating our own convocation, and leaving ‘The Narrow Place’ together."— E.M. Broner
"The idea of opening the door is that we hope Elijah might actually be there this year – that we might actually have done enough to change the world to have had him arrive. And, if we don’t have even the tiniest bit in us that thinks he might be there, that thinks we have tried our hardest to bring around a messianic time, with no hunger, no war, no conflict, no pain – if we don’t believe that we have tried to end those broken parts in the world – well, then I tell my students – don’t do any of it."— Rabbi Leora Kaye
"The whole seder, for me, is the tension between two statements: We say, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and now we’re free,' but before that, we pick up the matzoh, we invite the hungry in and we say, 'This year we are slaves, next year may we be free.' We are the most fortunate, liberated Jews in history. But on the other hand, there are lots of things that enslave us."— Rabbi Arthur Green
"To tune of "Mack the Knife": "Enter Haman ben Hamdasa, /And he’s claimin’, he’s an Agagite. /Better look out, oh Hadassah/For that Haman—he’s an Amalekite./And though Haman, he’s in power now, That old Mordy, will not bow down. /Haman’s ego, it takes a powder now. And just like that—Amalek’s in town!""— By Rabbi Jan Uhrbach
"Do you know that every shepherd/ has his own tune? / Do you know that every blade/ of grass has its own poem?/ And from the poem/ of the grasses,/ a tune of the shepherd/ is made./ How beautiful and/ pleasant to hear/ this poem!"— Reb Nachman of Breslov's Likutei Moharan
"Tu B'Shvat is more than a New Year for Trees -- it is a call to action. To observe Tu B'Shvat isn't to read and pray, but to do, to plant, to place one's hands in contact with the Earth....While we may mark Tu B'Shvat as a Jewish Earth Day once a year, we are responsible as Jews to act as environmental stewards every day."— David Krantz - Aytzim: Ecological Judaism
"Donniel Hartman said the miracle of Hanukkah is not just that the oil lasted 8 days; it’s actually that it lasted more than one. Would we have said, 'Dayenu,' (to mix metaphors,) if it had lasted two days? Would we have had a holiday? Probably, yes. The idea that we as a Jewish community, even in our darkest moments, hold out the hope that a candle is going to keep burning, I find very powerful."— Rabbi Rachel Ain
"“We would all argue vehemently and work tireless against assimilation. But the Hellenists and we Reform Jews didn’t assimilate. We acculturate, and by doing so, provide a portal for continuity unavailable to those who continue a quasi-ghettoized existence with all the ramifications thereof, good and bad. The irony, rarely mentioned by those who use the Hanukah story to justify Orthodoxy, is that the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) lasted a century and a half before they disappeared, having taken on Greek names as High Priests and Kings. And Rabbinic Judaism, the first ‘reform’ movement, birthed all of us.”"— Rabbi Peter J. Rubinstein
"I find it refreshing to go from carrying the decomposing lulav and etrog in our hands in procession for 7 days (save for Shabbat), to carry absolutely nothing on Shemini Atzeret, to then carry a Torah on Simchat Torah. It’s like Judaism’s way of saying… ‘What you are carrying with you on this journey — Torah, lessons, stories, values, covenant, a connection with a higher power and history — all of the intangibles, you carry them with you on the tangible, tentative, twisting path of life."— Rabbi Paul Jacobson
"Shemini Atzeret is conceptually an attempt to maintain the holiday relationship with God without any specific rituals. In modern times it has been become eclipsed by the joy and dancing of Simchat Torah. This speaks to the difficulty in a pure relationship without concrete modes of expression. It could be a reminder that our close relationships exist even when we don't exchange presents or cards."— Rabbi Yosef Blau
"Sukkot is the reminder that it doesn't take two days or even two years to go from darkness to light. It might take an entire lifetime to get there and you have to constantly walk with the belief that it's possible."— Rabbi Sharon Brous
"Yom Kippur: God is our judge. Sukkot: God is our shelter. Yom Kippur: you sit cooped up for endless hours. Sukkot is about space and breath. Yom Kippur, it’s all about, ‘What have I done?’ And Sukkot is, ‘What can I do in the world?’"— Rabbi Naomi Levy
"The Rabbis in the Talmud spoke of the necessity of both sinai and oker harim, that is both those who collected traditions that were handed down and also those who literally “overturned mountains.” Essentially, the one group would not survive without the other. It is in the radical interpretations of the given traditions, and in the broad and fluent knowledge of the traditions that one is able to create radical new interpretations."— Dr. Aryeh Cohen
""I have never felt that repentence, prayer, and tzedakah would change my fate. Rather, I feel that through honest reflection, refinement, and a sense of responsibility, I do have incredible power to affect the decree for others.""— Cantor Ellen Dreskin
"Teshuvah does invite us to begin again, but not from the beginning. Part of what it means to be human is to learn how to begin again and again – from right where we are, right in the messy middle of things. The Torah, according to an ancient midrash, reminds us of this truth by opening the story of creation itself with the letter Bet…Even when we have rolled the parchment scroll as far back as it will go, the letter Bet meets us there -- insisting that this story cannot be told from the very beginning. No story can. Beginnings elude us."— Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
"This year our theme at Temple Emanuel Beverly Hills is “If not Now, When?” and we asked congregants to tweet their responses to #innwtebh or to fill out cards filling in the blanks :“If not now, when will I….” We will prepare these ‘intentions for the year” in a similar way, as a power point presentation scrolling quietly on the screen facing the congregation as individuals come forward silently in front of the open ark before neilah."— Rabbi Laura Geller