Saturday, November 3, 2007
Chapter 7. Passover
Winter ended and Spring began. The snow melted and the hills were just beginning to bring out their green color. Passover in the Spring, like Rosh Hashonoh and Yom Kippur in the Fall, were strange times in Korea for me, a dipping back into reality, that is to say my reality, not the U.S. Army and Korean reality to which I had become accustomed. For months I had been living in an American outpost, not the America that I had lived in since birth, but a strange far away military America with different customs, a different language, and a different way of dress. Outside my American island, I was surrounded by a basically friendly but strange people who looked, acted, ate, and dressed differently than I, and spoke a language which I for the most part could not share with them. Yet, on a Sunday afternoon in Seoul when I would wander through a park or ancient palace or museum, I would see Korean families on their Sunday outing or picnicking on the grass. I felt a kinship, a certain warmth. They reminded me more of home than Camp Casey, my safe but sterile outpost.
Anyway, on the Jewish holidays, in the middle of this foreign land, out would appear Jews, not just American Jewish soldiers, but people who were there for one reason or another, old people, young people, women, children, families. Some were there temporarily on business. Some might have been permanent, maybe the remnants of people who had fled there to escape the Holocaust. I don't really know where they all came from. There was one Korean man who came to services on all the Jewish holidays. He wore his yarmulke (skull cap) and tallis (prayer shawl), davened (prayed), and obviously knew what he was doing. Then there were the Korean observers, young men and women, who would stand in the back, a different group each time. I guess we were interesting, perhaps exotic, to them. It reminded me of the time back home when I went with a friend to midnight mass on Christmas Eve just to see what it was like. Watching someone else's religious services can be fun.
There were two Jewish rabbi chaplains in the Army in Korea, one stationed at Camp Red Cloud in Ui Jong Bu, the other somewhere further south. But the holidays were celebrated at Yongson Compound, the main army post in Seoul. That compound had been the headquarters for the Japanese army when they ruled Korea. It was a rather nice looking place. Some of the old buildings had a kind of elegance, for an army post. There were big old trees. All in all it was a rather nice place.
The seder was held in a soldiers' mess hall (dining hall in regular English). Where soldiers of the Imperial Japanese army had eaten for many years and later our American soldiers had eaten, we now were eating matzoh (unleavened bread) and saying brukhas (blessings) over the four cups of wine. One of the children asked the Manishtana (four questions). There were moror (bitter horse radish) and kharoses (a sweet mixture of apples, nuts, and wine). There were greens, salt water, and hard boiled eggs. After dinner, the men raced through the prayers until we got to the songs. We all sang together, the soldiers, the business men away from home, the obviously Jewish Korean man, the Korean observers, the Jews who just lived there for whatever reason, the men, the women, the children, the old people, we all sang together. The next morning we reassembled in the chapel for services. That afternoon I pretty much just hung around. I ran into Fishberg and some other guys sitting under a tree talking about all sorts of things, like what we planned to do when we would go home. Fishberg was going to go back to New York. He was already accepted into an internal medicine residency at some hospital back there. Lieutenant Pepper, the food service officer, was undecided about whether to go to graduate school to study archaeology or go into his father's restaurant business. I wonder what he actually ended up doing, maybe something else altogether. Passover happened to fall on a weekend that year, so the next day was Sunday and we had an extra day in Seoul. As the sun was dipping low in the sky, our conversation turned to what we would do that evening. By the time it had fallen below the horizon, we had decided on the Green Door in Yong Dong Po rather than the Ranch. When night had come and the stars twinkled in a cloudless black sky, the spell had already been broken. We were off in a taxi, like mice in Cinderella's pumpkin, dashing to our usual entertainment.