Imagined Judaism popular in South Korea, a country without Jews

Examining the paradox of a country where book-vending machines sell Korean versions of the Talmud and documentaries on Judaism are broadcast on television, at the same time that the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has found South Korea to be one of the most anti-Semitic countries in the world although there are not more than 100 Jewish residents, Christopher L. Schilling pays attention to the fascination of Koreans for “Jewish education” in an article published in Modern Judaism (May). Many people have a copy of the Talmud at home, and some schools organize “Talmudic debates” while having no intent of converting their pupils to Judaism. Rather, they are looking for the secret of success that is associated with Jews. The “Talmud” owned by many Korean households is no more than a few dozen pages long, compared with the thick volumes of the original. Many versions were the product of Rabbi Marvin Tokayer, who successfully published in Japan—and subsequently in other East Asian countries—“the Talmud” and other popular short books on various aspects of Judaism. Having no knowledge of local languages, Tokayer depended on translators and heavily commercialized Judaism, laying the ground for all kinds of stereotypes about Jews. Other publishers followed with similar publications. Searching “Talmud” in the National Digital Library of Korea, more than 800 different books appear, half of them children’s books. “Many Koreans seem to believe that reading those books will somehow improve their children’s IQ, and the very popular subgenre of the ‘pre-natal Talmud’ indicates that it supposedly supports brain development in the womb.”

While this interest delights the current Chabad rabbi in Seoul, Schilling is less enthusiastic. According to him, this has little to do with a love for Judaism, but rather with an interest in tools for improving Koreans’ own achievements. They hope to find the secret technique that has supposedly allowed Jews to prosper. Their fascination is primarily one with “Jewish success, power, and wealth,” thus spreading stereotypes. Consequently, it should not be a surprise that a 2014 ADL survey shows that more than half of South Koreans think that Jews have too much power and influence. Admiration may be part of that sentiment, but it has the potential to justify antisemitism too. Most highly educated students in South Korea fail to get jobs matching their level of education, Schilling concludes, and their frustration might well turn some of them into critics of unfulfilled promises of the “Talmud” and “Jewish education.”

(Modern Judaism: A Journal of Jewish Ideas and Experience,