Korea Calling

Korean Christians aim to introduce Israelis to their culture through a festival opening tomorrow featuring tae kwon do, costumes, a traditional Korean fan dance and a Shavuot-themed musical.

2017 Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival (photo credit: JAE-WON RYU)
2017 Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival
(photo credit: JAE-WON RYU)
For most of us, South Korea probably still pertains to the realms of exotic pastures over in the Far East. Others may recall the hugely successful M*A*S*H American comedy TV series, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, which told the bittersweet tale of a US Army medical unit in the Korean War of the early 1950s.
If your knowledge of the democratic southern part of Korea amounts to the above, you’re in for an eye- and ear-opener when the 2017 Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival takes place in Jerusalem, Ashkelon and Haifa May 27-June 2.
The event is the brainchild of the Korean Christians for Shalom Jerusalem, which has a strong bond with this country and with the majority of its residents. The organization presents itself as “a global coalition of Korean Christians that recognizes the biblical importance of the Jewish people.” KCSJ members come from different parts of the world, including South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Taiwan, and “have prayed for the peace of Jerusalem for the past 30 years.”
The organization is constantly looking to maintain a close relationship with Israel, which, according to Korea Israel Bible Institute head Mansuk Song, was one of the motives for getting the festival up and running. The event began life in New York in 2013, with events taking place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan, the Free Synagogue in Queens and the Kings Bay Jewish Community Center in Brooklyn. “New York has the largest population of Jews of any city in the world, so we thought, Why don’t I go to New York and meet Jews there, and comfort them?” The latter sentiment is central to the KCSJ modus operandi. “In Isaiah, chapter 40, verse 1, it says: ‘Comfort, comfort my people’; ‘my people’ is the Jews, and the rest are gentiles,” Song explains. “We thought, That’s God’s commandment these days. We know that for the past 2,000 years, Jews have been persecuted in the name of Jesus, by Christianity, so we should comfort them and repent.”
Song and his cohorts in the KCSJ, including Hebrew-speaking Sherry Kim, who acts as the organization’s strategic planning director, feel that this noble cause can be furthered by bringing Koreans and Israelis closer together, partly by introducing us to Korean culture.
To that end, the 2017 Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival program covers a range of disciplines, including the Korean martial art tae kwon do, a display of traditional Korean costume wear and Korean dance.
The latter discipline will be proffered by several troupes, including the Kawnggaeto Art Company, which will show us “a unique and modern take on traditional Korean entertainment.”
It will, we have been promised, be a “colorful and energetic performance.”
And there will be more in the way of updated dance, with a work by celebrated choreographer Seung Joo Lee, which will offer a contemporary performance of traditional styles.
There will also be a seasonal slot, in the form of The Promised Land: Ruth and King David, a musical performed by an international cast from the United States, South Korea, Taiwan and Israel. Stellar Korean opera singers Hoo Ryung Hwang and Jin Young Cho are in the lineup of the biblically themed production, the timing of which takes the temporal juxtaposition with Shavuot into account.
Song notes that “the highlight of the show is a statement of repentance by a Christian pastor for the unspeakable atrocities that were committed in the name of Christianity.”
The festival roster also features the Lion Dance, a fusion drum ensemble and a traditional Korean fan dance. All told, some 240 performers will come over from the US, with around another 140 due to fly in from South Korea.
According to Song, Christianity has been practiced in South Korea for over a century.
“It was mostly because missionaries came over from the United States and Canada,” he says, adding a surprising morsel of information. “As a matter of fact, the first translation of the Bible into Korean was done by a Jew.”
Korean-speaking Jews must have been a rarity in the 19th century. In fact, the translator was not initially au fait with the language.
“He was a Russian Jew called Alexander, who was on his way to Australia,” Song continues. “When he was in Japan, he met an American missionary and he became a believer, he became a Christian. He was trained [as a missionary] in Japan and sent to Korea. He learned Korean and he translated the Bible from 1917 to 1938. That was the Old Testament. We still use that Bible.”
There’s more to the Jewish-Korean connection. “The first Protestant missionary in Korea was also a Jew, a Polish Jew,” says Songs. “He went to the Netherlands and became a Christian there, and then he was sent to the Far East. That was in 1832. He wrote a small book, a report, about Christianity in Korea.”
The Polish missionary was later killed for his faith, but an American missionary by the name of Underwood later read the report and went to Korea in the 1880s to spread the Christian word there.
The missionaries’ efforts laid the groundwork for what has developed into a sizable Christian community.
“There are over 10 million Christians in Korea today,” says Song. “It is the largest religious group in the country. Buddhism was No. 1, but it changed last year, I think.”
Song sees numerous Jewish-Korean connections which, he believes, also take in the supreme commander of the US forces who fought in the Korean War in the early 1950s. “US president Harry Truman sent the American army to Korea under Gen. MacArthur. He [MacArthur] was a Jew.” While I found no evidence of the celebrated five-star general’s Jewishness, you get Song’s Israel-oriented cordiality point.
“And the [inaugural] first lady of Korea was an Austrian Jew,” Song adds.
“And Israel sent doctors to Korea during the war.” The former refers to Francesca Maria Barbara Donner, who was the second wife of Syngman Rhee, the first president of South Korea, who served from 1948 to 1960.
After running four Stateside editions of the Shalom Yerushalayim Cultural Festival, the event is finally coming to its titular venue.
“Of course this is the 50th year of the unification of Jerusalem, so it was important for us to have the festival here this year,” says Song.
Song and Kim hope the event helps to make people from both countries more conversant with each other’s cultures, and to bridge gaps between the countries.
“I think the cultures of Israel and Korea are totally different, but the 10 million Christians in Korea are very interested in what happens in Israel,” notes Song. “And, of course, both countries have a history of being surrounded by enemies. We share that. Israel is very important to us.”