The Jewish Mermaid

May 10, 2009
-A +A

Korean American Christine Lee Zilka, like Hans Christian Andersen’s mermaid, moves between two worlds for the sake of love.

I am a Jewish Korean American. When people ask me for my ethnicity, I say I am Korean. That comes as no big surprise, given my appearance. When people ask me for my nationality, I say I am American. That also comes as no big surprise, given my demeanor. When people ask me for my religion, I say I am Jewish. That surprises people.

christine lee zilka's wedding

Worlds collide: Korean Jewish family ties

“You certainly don’t look Jewish!” people exclaim, or they simply say, “How?”. There are no clues in my appearance as to my Jewish ancestry. That’s because my ancestors were not Jewish—I’m a Jew by choice.

In synagogue, there is an even bigger range of reactions, from the welcoming: “Well, we are happy to have you, have you heard about the Chinese mohel?” to the hostile: “You must be a convert,” to the helpful yet misguided: “I want to introduce you, do you want me to say your first name is Christine since it’s such a Christian first name and it will give you away as a convert? Maybe you have a Jewish name instead?”

The more enlightened ask me if I’m a Chinese Jew—for Jews do exist all over the world, even China, where the government recognizes Jews as an official Chinese ethnic group. Chinese Jews even have Chinese surnames—a Ming Emperor conferred on the Jews seven surnames: Ai, Lao, Jin, Li, Shi, Zhang and Zhao. They will have only one of these seven names to this day.

Yet for all the proximity of these two countries, Jews never made it over to Korea. So a Korean Jew is a very rare creature indeed. To top it off, the largest growing Christian population in the world is the Korean population and Christianity does not mesh well with Judaism (the main belief contention being that Jesus is not the Saviour and Son of God, according to Judaism). There is about as much potential for Judaism as a growing religion in Korea as a water-hungry alfalfa sprout in the desert.

This is not to say Korean Jews do not exist—with all the intermarriages and international adoptions, culture lines are beginning to mingle. Many Korean children have been adopted into Jewish families—Michael Chabon’s book The Wonderboys has one such Korean Jewish main character. These Korean Jews (real or fictive), I believe, will one day have children who are born Jewish, and a new Jewish line will be born.

But for now, being a Korean and Jewish is a very unique identity; though I imagine the number of Korean and other Asian Jews will increase in this intermingling world, in contrast there is an established history of Eastern European Jews, Ethiopian Jews, Spanish Jews, Chinese Jews, and my husband’s family line of Iraqi Jews, just to name a few.

Being Jewish for me has revolved around the question of acceptance. For years, the question was foremost in my mind:

Will I be accepted? Will I be accepted by other Jews, by Jewish law, by the rabbis, by my husband’s family, and by my mother-in-law?

“Will I be accepted?” Will I be accepted by other Jews, by Jewish law, by the rabbis, by my husband’s family, and by my mother-in-law?


You’re not supposed to convert to Judaism because you want to marry someone who is Jewish—you are supposed to do it for the pure love and desire to be a part of Judaism. Nevertheless, I have to admit, I made the decision at first to convert for my mother-in-law’s acceptance. No one else cared as much that I be a Jew than she did. And as someone brought up on Korean traditions, I wanted no one else to accept me more than my mother-in-law.

korean wedding of christine lee zilka