Jewish in Korea - Seoul

   I decided that my first outing should be to find my Jewish family here in Korea. Voila! Or should I say, "Hineini!"? Chabad of Korea. I had already made the email connection in advance. The rabbi suggested that Shabbat (Friday/Saturday) would be the best time to come. Today was Saturday - already well into Shabbat! I'd only arrived in Korea a day before and arrived at my airbnb well in advance of Shabbat. However there was no way I was going to now trek over to the other side of town.

   I pondered over whether it would be appropriate to go on Saturday. The reason I pondered was because I would need to travel there by subway which is not recommended for those observing the Sabbath. Even though I am not considered Shabbat-observant to those standards, Chabad is. In the end I came to the conclusion that, even though I would have to ride the subway to get there, for some reason I felt it was necessary to touch base with my core.... Judaism.

   It was already around 4pm when I made my decision to find the Chabad center in Seoul. I figured I'd be there by 5:15pm or so what with the walk to the subway, the waiting for trains and another walk to the Chabad house. The subway ride was about 45-minutes from Gwanak-gu at the Seoul University station where I am to Itaewon or Itaewon station near where the Chabad house is. Itaewon is a much livelier and more multicultural area. I noticed different kinds of people of color, non-Asians including quite a few Muslims. Koreans just take polite glances at us foreigners when they can take their eyes off their cellphones! The Muslims gave long stares (it didn't seem they had cellphones). The other non-Asians just seemed to go about the daily business of trying to figure out which subway was going where? Just to clarify for the PC police who are reading this...no judgement meant here - just observations on a first outing. I, myself, am guilty of constant stares, glances, and general roving eyeballs as I take it all in to get acclimated.

   As seems to be my habit when in new places, I managed to get royally lost looking for the Chabad house. I remember when I came back to the USA after living in Israel for twenty-two years. I thought I knew the terrain. I was wrong. I got hopelessly lost for at least a month. Especially because everyone gave directions with "east, then west, then north and south" instead of "yashar, yashar v'smolah - - -go straight until the end then turn left!".

   Much as my experience getting lost in Ein Kerem, Jerusalem, I walked up and up and up a few nicely inclined roads (ugh) and found myself in the midst of a neighborhood that was clearly hosting some very wealthy people. Fancy cars with darkened windows were plentiful as were the very large gated houses. Heck, if I'm lost in a wealthy area, I thought, then maybe in the very least I'll see a Korean drama actor or a K-Pop singer? Or maybe I'll get even luckier and run into my reason for being here in the first place - XIA - Kim Junsu????!!!!! No such luck. After all, I was going to Chabad on Shabbat!!! G-D would not put idols in front of me at this time, right?

   The struggle to find Jews in Korea was becoming a reality at this point. Would I have to roam the streets of Korea for 40 years? Was this my punishment for traveling on Shabbat? Or was G-D testing my determination to be with my Jews in another foreign land?

   I was using my different map apps (also a no-no on Shabbat) that for some reason couldn't seem to pinpoint the exact address. I stopped and asked delivery people, guards and even a few wealthy homeowners to point me in the right direction. They pointed but it never seemed to get me to the right place. A few nice women noticed I was lost (women here seem to be the friendliest!). They, too, offered their help. Some of them were also lost themselves! Even the homeowners seemed confused. I noticed a man who seemed to be just leaving his home. A glance into his very large garage revealed at least five Porsche's and a few other choice cars. When asked (yes, I have chutzpah enough to ask the forbidden personal questions!) he explained it was "his collection". I asked what he did for a living? He said he was a businessman. Anyway, I figured if he lived in the neighborhood he might know where the Jews were hanging out?  Chabadniks (Chassidic Jewsare fairly obvious to identify. The man had no idea what I was talking about but he was nice enough to take the time to study the map that was opened up on my phone. Apparently I was close but not in the right section of the neighborhood. I had to walk back down the hill and over a few blocks more. I thanked the nice man and off I went.

   I was now in the right vicinity but still couldn't find the exact address. Determined more then ever now, I opened the phone to the Chabad in Korea website page. I had been trekking and mountain climbing for at least two hours now! Looking at the pictures it seemed to me that it should be very obvious which house it was.


   Again I was approached by another very nice woman. I was at this point just standing in the road looking absolutely perplexed. She, too, was lost and frustrated. She explained that the road signs were useless. I agreed with her. She stated that the city keeps making changes so the roads have multiple names and addresses. Yes, I also noticed the clear state of address confusion. It seemed to me that the houses boasted multiple sets of numbers and many roads seemed to have the same name. I was informed later that many streets are also "hidden" - they're offshoots and alleyways of the main streets. As I already mentioned, even my GPS couldn't seem to pinpoint where the Chabad house was! In fact, this seemed to be the case with the other map apps I was using too. Does this mean that my time in Korea will actually be a real life treasure hunt?

   Nevertheless, that nice woman got me very close to my destination. She even accompanied me to look for it. Maybe she just wanted to feel good that she had finally found something in this maze? As we walked onto another street I noticed a man on a motorcycle waiting for his garage door to open. He clearly lived right there in that house. I approached him and asked him if the Jews lived nearby. YES! This man knew what I was talking about! The Chabad house was on the next street over! I thanked the nice woman and homeowner for their valuable help. I walked to the next street and FINALLY, I found it, the holy house of prayer! I was there. Hallelujah!


   It was closing in on 7pm when I finally entered the Chabad house. Mussy, Rabbi Osher Litzman's wife, showed me to where the rabbi was holding a study session. I was happy to sit, listen and learn at last! The session consisted of about five men discussing Mishnah. Next was seudah shlishit (the third Shabbat meal - traditionally a light meal) consisting of refreshing fruits, roasted nuts and HALVAH!!! After the seudah there was another short study session. The evening finished with Havdalah to mark the end of Shabbat (Sabbath). A few more people, including some women, showed up for Havdalah. We all chatted a bit. The "crowd" consisted of some Israeli's, a young Russian man, a "local" and his son and also a man from South Africa who had converted to Judaism. Our Jewish mixed multitudes.

   Oh wow - look what I just found on the web! An actual MAP! Oh sweet map, why were you invisible to me on Shabbat????!!!


   It was now about 9:30pm and time to find my way back to the airbnb. A few of the guests escorted me to the Itaewon station. They were going that way too. I had a nice chat with two young women, Natalie and Hadar, both Israeli who were traveling and studying a bit. We chatted and watched a gzillion young Koreans fill up the streets for a night out. WOW, it sure is a busy section of town. Apparently there's a hefty night life at Itaewon. I was tempted to stay longer and explore. I didn't. I was worried I might get lost again finding my way home in the dark! I did. Such is life. But I'm back to tell the story. Tomorrow's another day.

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