Meet a Jew before you die

In a Korean bookstore in Flushing today, I ran a very interesting book: 죽기전에 한번은 유대인을 만나라 (Meet a Jew Once Before You Die), a Korean translation of Rabbi Joseph Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values: A Day-by-Day Guide to Ethical Living. The Korean cover is graced with the question, “유대인은 어떻게 원하는 것을 얻는가?” which could be translated as “How do Jews get what they want?”

I have been thinking a lot lately about how I can translate my life experience into a curriculum — how I might be able to share my passion for teaching and mentoring, particularly within an East Asian  context. What do I have to offer that stands out from every other consultant with a professional enrichment seminar?

Until now, I’d seen two things. First, there’s my experience at Google, a name brand with cachet. Second, there’s my role as an outsider — a non-Asian — who has a deep and serious understanding of Asian culture.

But it hadn’t occurred to me to bring my Jewish heritage into the mix. I’ve talked to Koreans about how my outsider status enables me to see things about Korean society that Koreans simply overlook. Now I realize that I’d been similarly blind to my own culture.

In fact, my Jewishness is at the core of my interest in Asia. I grew up apart from the mainstream California culture around me, observing strange rituals and each year going through the cycle of the Torah, reading stories about tents, flocks of sheep, idols, wives and handmaidens and going down to Egypt. These stories took place in an exotic world that was not my own, but These are your people, I was told. I suppose that was the beginning of wanting to go east. When I chose a place to travel after college, I didn’t choose Israel, a land run by European Jews much like my own family, but India, where people still wear turbans and there are still idol shops — where you can feel some surviving sense of the polytheistic world in which Abraham, Isaac and Jacob founded their clan. Our clan.

More prosaically, it was the Jewish emphasis on education that pushed me to excel at school and gave me a home life where we read encyclopedia entries at the dinner table. Everyone in my family had at least a college education, and most of them had post-graduate degrees. Doing well in school was simply what one did. (But not through excessive hard work — that’s where we differ from Asians.) And my outsider’s perspective to my own American culture has perhaps made it easier for me to understand the Asian immigrant experience, and also to pull myself free of American society and go elsewhere.

And here we come to the darker experience of Judaism: living with a suspicion that everyone secretly hates you for being a Jew. The very thing that has given me access to the world could also be described as rootless cosmopolitanism, a slur that the Soviets threw at the Jews to accuse them of a lack of patriotism. Jewish success can be a source of pride, but there’s always the anxiety that discussion of individual Jewish triumphs will devolve into theories of collective Jewish control over industries, economies, countries — theories that make the Jewish people sound a lot like the Elders of Zion. Indeed, at the Korean bookstore today, along with the first book about Jewish values, was a more worrying text: 유대인 이야기: 그들은 어떻게 부의 역사를 만들었는가 (Jewish Story: How They Created the History of Wealth), with an English title of Jewish Economic History. I don’t think that the Koreans who produce such books have any anti-Semitic feelings — quite the contrary — but Jewish history has had the perverse effect of turning collective compliments into collective threats.

There are also more personal reasons why I haven’t promoted Judaism as my calling card. As I became an adult, I turned away from the Chassidic Judaism my parents had embraced as I was growing up. I live in New York City, where secular Jewish culture is in the air, and I have never denied my identification with it. But I haven’t wanted to make it the focus either. People make assumptions. Just this morning I had to explain over dimsum to an old friend that despite her intuitions, I actually do eat pork. And then I feel awkward with the idea of being a pork-eating representative of Judaism.

Awkwardness, I suppose, is very Jewish. Woody Allen and Joseph Roth turned it into high art. And this recognition of Korean interest in my hidden, uncomfortable not-quite-faith arrives just as I’ve begun to delve into shamanism, Korea’s own embarrassing, mostly secret bundle of traditions, superstitions, rituals and half-believed spiritual truths. I suppose that if I want Koreans to share their deep culture with me — the part of it that history has taught them not to show to outsiders — then I ought to step up and do the same. And if every Korean should meet a Jew before dying, I suppose there’s no reason why I can’t be that Jew. And no reason I can’t charge for the experience either — after all, we Jews created the history of wealth, and we know how to get what we want.