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Jewplexed: Korean Talmud Tales

Koreans read Talmud? "Bavli or Yerushalmi… and with kimchi?” And what about Koreans living in the US, had they packed their love of Talmud with them when they immigrated?



Korean Talmud Tales

The Talmud is a big seller in the US, just not in the neighborhoods and bookstores that you might expect.korean talmuds
In Los Angeles the Talmud is a big seller in neighborhoods where Hebrew is never spoken. In LA’s Koreatown, a roughly twenty block area of markets, galbi restaurants and bookstores, you can find over a dozen different editions of the Talmud, just not in Hebrew or English.
Korean books about the Talmud are also for sale in Korean bookstores in New York, Chicago, and San Francisco and others as well.

Earlier this year, I read that the Korean ambassador to Israel, Mr. Young Sam Ma in an interview reported both on ynet and the Muqata blog had talked at length about the Korean interest in these ancient Jewish sources of, Torah interpretation, law and wisdom:

"Jews study the Talmud at a young age, and it helps them, in our opinion, to develop mental capabilities. This understanding led us to teach our children as well. We believe that if we teach our children Talmud, they will also become geniuses. “

Later the ambassador added that “This is the rational to make Talmud a part of home education in Korea.”

Koreans read Talmud? “Bavli or Yerushalmi…and with kimchi?” I wondered. And what about Koreans living in the US, had they packed their love of Talmud with them when they immigrated?

Since I live near LA’s Koreatown, I went off to a nearby Korean bookstore to check it out.

Stepping into the store packed with thousands of Korean language titles; at first I was lost without translation.

“Do you carry the Talmud?” I asked the Korean bookstore owner.

“Talmud,” he answered, “Yes.”

Quickly, he was able to pull from the shelves several books with “Talmud” in the title, both for adults and for children. Flipping though them, I could see they were not laid out in the classic form of text surrounded by interpretations. Instead what I saw were pages of short chapters.

Chatting with a bookstore owner through an interpreter, I learned that most of the Talmud buyers are Korean moms and teachers.  

And as I was to later discover, neighbors too.

neighbor with talmudA few months passed, and after a community meeting, A Korean artist, Chanel Wickland, a neighbor who knows I am Jewish, came up and started talking to me about her love for Talmud. “I read it every night before I go to sleep,” she said. “If you come over, I can show you the book,” she offered.

Intrigued, I accepted the invitation, hoping to finally find out what was in the Korean Talmud.

When I arrived, Chanel who is originally from Seoul and whose Korean name is Jooyun, had her well-worn Korean Talmud ready. Written by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, she explained that it was filled with stories and wisdom.

Tokayer while living in Japan, (he was first stationed there as an Air Force chaplain) had written some twenty books in Japanese, including some about Jewish learning and life that eventually were translated into Korean.

After translating a story from the book about three brothers on a mission to save a princess's life she commented, “Only one son was willing to share everything to save her life.”

“Sharing is everything,” she said.

Overall, the stories, have great meaning for her. “You have to think a different way,” she said.  “Nobody thinks this way in Korea” she added.

“Before reading this I didn’t know about Jews,” she said, explaining that in the back of the book there’s a chapter that introduces Jewish holidays even kashrut.

“Talmud is your thinking, your heart, what’s inside,” she said.

Edmon J. Rodman has written about making his own matzah for JTA, Jewish love music for the Jerusalem Post, yiddisheh legerdemain for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, a Bernie Madoff Halloween mask for the Forward, and what really gets stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits for the Los Angeles Times. He has edited several Jewish population studies, and is one of the founders of the Movable Minyan, an over twenty-year-old chavura-size, independent congregation. He once designed a pop-up seder plate. In 2011 Rodman received a First Place Simon Rockower Award for "Excellence in Feature Writing" from the American Jewish Press Association."


Soul Food, May 26

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