Monday, December 21, 2020

The Roof of National Pride: Dr. Zo’s “Old Village Movement”

Text and Photography by Lauren W. Deutsch unless noted otherwise. All rights reserved.

Originally published in Kyoto Journal, vol. #36, 1999

New Afterward Special to this Article, January 1, 2010


The Roof of National Pride

“I can’t believe people still live like that!” exclaimed the Korean government cultural affairs official in his office in Los Angeles. Returning a few days before from Korea, I had just showed him a photograph of a beautifully smiling woman about 80 years old, dressed simply in shirt and pants who was sitting on the transom of the doorway to her home. The smile was directed at a business-suited man, half kneeling in front of her. Dr. Zo Zayong, the eminent authority on Korean folk art and indigenous spiritual traditions, was making a house call. 


“Is that the good news or the bad news?” I responded to his continued disbelief about living conditions in the country he not only calls home but whose culture he is duly empowered to represent abroad. When you see her smile and understand the work of Dr. Zo, Korea’s champion of indigenous spiritual traditions, sort of a diplomat from the proud past, it can only be good news.


Korea’s cultural officials like to show off the country’s opulent courtly and literati customs with a smattering of folkloric farmer and monk dances, masked theatre and even the shamanic spectacle that are becoming a bit more acceptable as “real” art. I empathized with him over the work that still remained to be done in bringing material comfort to the most remote areas and even silently thought about occasion reports of rampant poverty north of the 38th parallel. 


But, again, this woman was smiling. She clearly had a peaceful experience ... from what? Dr. Zo is the key. For the past 30 years, he has directed extensive but not unlimited personal financial resources, developed technical know-how, engaged in scholarly research and demonstrated exceptional artistry, and found time to do cultural “social work” all toward honoring this woman’s and their compatriots’ indigenous spiritual traditions. For men and women do not live by bread alone.



New Road to the Old Spirits


Having “lost at least one century” through genocidal occupation by the Japanese and then suffering debilitating wars from within and without, Korea’s Past President Park Chung Hee in the 1970s orchestrated the highly successful Saemaul (New Community Movement) which brought critical economic and material improvements to the truly impoverished countryside, particularly electricity and roads, as well as reforms in agriculture, reforestation, anti-pollution and cleanliness. 


To his credit he noted in many speeches during that time, “Economic and construction and spiritual development are not separate concepts.”  “Spiritual” here meant diligence, self-sufficiency, cooperation, honesty and frugality. Nowhere did it mention the spirit of the land itself, of the cycles of life which for centuries were tied to the interaction with manshin, (literally: “ten thousand” spirits; Korea’s word for shaman), especially those associated with procreation.


It could be stated that Korean people have lost many more centuries of individual and group continuity by being cut off from their deepest roots of spiritual tradition by pressures from within and without, particularly by the pressures of foreign proselytizing religions --Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, even Shinto and Christianity. Each brought to the land, where “peaceful” is the basis of most greetings, a sense that the “other” culture was more valuable than the domestic, more sophisticated and worldlier. Whether imposed by wartime occupation, subtly attached to desperately needed materials or simply offered in good faith, each plowed the indigenous spirit under the soil, and now under the concrete. Dr. Zo’s mission is to reinstall and celebrate that which is truly Korean ... not Chinese or Asian.

Consider what happened in 1996. A new road is finally coming to Chuk Chong Maul, a small village at the foot of Koobyongsan (literally ”Nine Panel Folding Screen”) Mountain. Is this good news or bad news? 


Good news for moving rice and peppers and other cash crops from field to market. Bad news because the village’s two remaining Sanshin Dang (Mountain Spirit Shrines), looking nothing more than 4 foot high pile of stones, are right in the way of progress. 

To the some 70 villagers -- renowned for living over 100 years -- these shrines are not folklore sites. They have been for centuries and remain portals to the mountain and its protective spirit. There is no record of anyone in this village having participated in a foreign religion. Whether the village will be known by its “cultural” name (literally, “Village of Bamboo Field”)  or its modern name, Number 2 Section of Sangri Ya, a handy indicator to find it on a government map, will be determined by whether it becomes road-defined or remains shrine-defined. For the road works in both ways; it brings a high-tech world into the village in no time. Again, is it good or bad news for the 20 or so young village children? Will they leave for good with the crops for “better” life in the city? 


Who cares? The villagers do, but their voice wasn’t heard over the earth moving equipment. Here’s where Dr. Zo goes to work.


Korean Yankee


At the age of 74 years, Dr. Zo has been the champion of locating old and still used shaman shrines and revitalizing village festivals and researching cosmology and other living cultural traditions of Korea for several decades. Since 1966 he has dedicated his life to restoring the 5,000 year old puzzle which unites heaven and earth, in the tradition of Tangun, Korea’s first leader, for Hong ik in gan, the benefit of mankind world-wide. 


It all began by his curiosity to identify and understand distinctly Korean imagery in Korea’s extensive folk art -- from tigers to dragon turtles and eagles, for example. Despite his high level of scholarship, he was constantly clashing with more popular standards of the so-called “fine” arts. His curiosity was drawn to “mysterious” holes in boulders and to the profiles of mountaintops when viewed from certain vantages. Eventually, his appreciation of shamanism’s role as the “ultimate spiritual base” to parallel folk art, as the ”physical base” of Korean culture was solidified.


Born in Hwanghae Province (now in North Korea), Zo Zayong was one of Korea’s first students to be educated in the West. He matriculated at Tennessee Wesleyan College (1948) and Vanderbilt University (1951) and finally earned his degree in Structural Engineering at Harvard in 1953. His distinguished engineering career includes the creation of several innovative structural systems utilized by architectural firms in the USA, Sweden and Korea, including his own. His buildings of note in Korea include the American Embassy Residence, several hospitals and organizations' headquarters. His career a stressful success, he retired in 1976 with his wife to the land he bought in the mountains to renew his health and pursue his cultural research. 


By then he was also becoming well known for being one of the earliest people to value and collect Korean folk art. His enormous collection began with old architectural materials, most notably Shilla period roof tiles with the tokkaebi (evil chasing spirit) on the ends -- of which he had 10,000. In addition, he began to collect “art-of-the-people,” most notably paintings of the mythic but extant Diamond Mountain (in the north), longevity and tiger paintings. The tiger is so central to Korean folklore (not to mention its being the companion of Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit). With his assistance, a uniquely Korean “smiling” caricature of a tiger became the official mascot of the 1988 (Seoul) Olympics. 


His collection was well known as the Emille Museum in Seoul and later, in 1983, he built for it a unique hexagonal shaped structure next to his home near Songni-san (Ch’ungch’ong Province, Po’un County). Dr. Zo traveled his collection from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. to major museums on the West Coast, and finally selling most of it, save key pieces of specifically shamanist (vs. household, record, memorial and Buddhist, Taoist and Confucionist works) to Samsung Corporation for continued conservation and exhibition. He, too, traveled to seek connections for the art and its evolution to Alaska, Japan and Vietnam, among other places.


By this time he had established the case for a serious reconsideration of the high standards of artistry evident in this artform through presentations of exhibitions and extensive catalog publishing (in Korean and English languages). He called for a renewal of greater respect for the anonymous artists who created them and for a deeper regard for the centrality of shamanism in which these symbols and the artworks themselves are key. Through years of collecting, Dr. Zo concluded that, “true Korean-ness in art is best expressed in terms of shamanism,” belief in sin (pronounced “shin”) spirits – in the lives of the people as evidenced by the work they created for ritual use. He expressed his “shock to discover the ultramodern art style that has long developed through unspoiled animism, fantasy and belief in the Mountain Spirit.

 His catalog of Diamond Mountain paintings (1975) hinted at the next turn of his interests from art collector to spiritual journeyman ... “I do not believe that technical observation of Shaman ritual or village gatherings alone can properly develop a clear picture of the role of mountain worship in Korean culture. Instead, I have been feeling that study of the general religious behavior of the common people in everyday life would disclose a better picture,” he wrote. “Most of the historical literature covering the spiritual life of Korean people are in terms of Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism, so we can hardly find written materials for a Shamanistic interpretation of our culture. However, we may be able to discover one other form ... visual art. It is here we find the interesting fact that traditional Korean art is always linked with the people’s spiritual life.” Those who loved nature created visual souvenirs, fine art, while those who worshipped nature created religious painting for use in ritual.

This challenged him to research Korea’s oldest historical records seeking to restore the full story of Korean shamanist cosmology. His central point is the Tri-God theory of Hanamin, the supreme ruler, who is represented through the trinity Samshin, three spirits -- depicted as tiger, dragon/turtle and phoenix/eagle and represented by both male and female images. His findings challenge the very symbol of Korea’s contemporary nationhood, the blue and red yin/yang image that, he has concluded, is Chinese, and lacks its sibling color, yellow. 


He traced shamanism through its incorporation into Buddhist iconography and explored temple sites, for the Buddhists established centers of worship where the people were already gathering, on the sites of ancient shrines. To this day, one can usually find a sub-temple honoring Sanshin, the Mountain Spirit, tucked behind other larger buildings in a complex. These temple sites, particularly those in the mountains, were key to locating “lost” ancient shamanist shrine areas. 


Further, the Korean shamanic Hananim tri-god emerged in the form of three Buddhas in paintings and other images followed in similar fashion. Conversely, Kwan Yin, (Avalokiteshvara) the Bodhisattva of Compassion has found a place on many shamanist altars. 

Despite the temples’ propensity to burn or bury or create new paintings over their old works, more survived than icons used by individual shamans. The latter are usually destroyed upon his or her death. Dr. Zo is still countering short-sighted Buddhist attributions given to truly older shamanist connections.


His findings published in now out of print catalogs*, including Guardians of Happiness: Shamanist Tradition in Korean Folk Painting (1982) and Korean Tiger: An Exhibition of Korean Folk Painting (1984), include some of the most detailed explanations of Korean shamanism cosmology and symbolism available in English. His more extensive works, originally handwritten in Korean, comprising three volumes are out of general circulation.


Walking His Talk


So we have Dr. Zo, cutting edge art collector and author / scholar. But he is not content to live in an ivory tower. Rather, he lives in relatively the same type of house as the woman in the photograph, deep within the mountains of Songnisan National Park. When he closed the Emille Museum to the public, he concurrently opened up in 1971 on the property the Samshin Hoegwan (literally “meeting place”), the Samshin Folk Academy. The facility has served him as a “retreat” center capable of housing up to 60 men, women and, often families with children, for weekend encampments to experience the old traditions, especially younger people, much like his teenage experience in a Christian youth leadership program in Ohio.

He wanted to educate new Korean civil servants, government officials and cultural leaders to join him in safeguarding Korea’s indigenous culture for generations to come. He would have to create an extensive education program and attract financial support from corporations and individuals as well, but most of the funds came from him personally.

Getting the city people back to the land – especially young families -- is critical to sustaining fragile traditions, particularly in a country whose rapidly erected huge, anonymous apartment buildings line the paths of super highways like collections of encyclopedias in a library. Where there is no roof beam, one is not likely to find the house’s ruling spirit in residence. 

Adjacent to the closed Emille Museum, Dr. Zo added several rustic cabins with ondol (heated floors), a large central kitchen, dining areas and other buildings, constructing them by hand out of old, found timber, some pieces over 250 years old; most had thatched roofs and rock, timber and mud walls.  

From 1990 through 1996, over 15,000 people of all ages, in family, social, business, cultural and government groups attended his residential programs. He encouraged participation by everyone, no “sightseers”, and was very successful, according to his copious photographic and written documentation of the encampments. 

In 1996, I was privileged to join one of the last few large groups on the site. There was constant celebration at every turn, from hand making buckwheat noodles and traditional dogg, glutinous rice cake, with traditional equipment, to sumptuous feasting on fresh sanchae, vegetarian mountain cuisine, and mokkoli, rice wine, to dancing and singing around the fire to the tune of gongs and drums until dawn. We reminisced on the days when people lived in harmony with and celebrated nature. We pranced around wearing hand-made papier maché masks of tokkaebi, the always smiling, evil-chasing demon. It was totally joyous. 

Of particular importance on site, are two spirit houses, including a new one for which Dr. Zo had waited 15 years for permits to build. This exquisite yet simple tile roofed building, about 24 feet x 18 feet, nestled at the base of the mountain, was finally dedicated this past June to Samshin Halmani, the tripartite grandmother goddess. She is depicted as three magnificent murals drawn by Dr. Zo. They will be permanently affixed to the walls following an exhibition in Seoul in January 1998. 

The creation of new shamanic icons -- of stone and wood and on paper, is another of Dr. Zo’s many and much sought-after talents. Each exciting image is true to historic detail and tradition while reflecting appropriately the unique artistry and sensibility of its creator.

In honor of the 1996 visit of Hi-ah Park, Manshin, the first Korean American to be initiated a shaman and with whom Dr. Zo has been associated for over 20 years, we also experienced a special kut, shamanic ritual, to dedicate three huge stone carvings depicting Samshin Halmani and especially honoring some 13 children who had been born in the past 8 years or so to parents who, having no other recourse, placed their fate on Dr. Zo’s recommendation, in the hands of Chilseong, the Seven Stars deity, long held to be effective in procreation.


The Samshin Folk Academy has only six true members, with 10 more on their way in the New Year. To qualify for membership, an individual must find and document 10 shamanic stone altars in the countryside. It’s not an easy task, as Dr. Zo is exacting in his critique of the findings. The group includes people of all walks of life, even mountain climbers. 


Adopt – A – Village


Another key element Dr. Zo realized was to help villages establish continuity with their traditions by reestablishing their shrines and festivals. Each year the Samshin Hoegwan “adopts” a village -- usually in remote areas -- to work with the residents and provide resources -- always including musical instruments and financial support and technical                  consultation for staging self-supporting, if not revenue-producing festivals. Chukchong Maul is one such village. Dr. Zo explains that sometimes people from the cities will come to a festival, eat and drink on the villagers’ tab and leave without reciprocating with appropriate financial offerings.

The first day we arrived, Dr. Zo whisked us off to join the festivities adjacent to an emerald green and gold rice field for the dedication of the Bang Jangung, (five Warrior Spirit Guardians flags) at the new Mountain God shrine. Dr. Zo had created a multi-colored painting of the bearded spirit with his trusty tiger companion carved into a stone about three feet high. He had designed and had carved additionally two spirit posts that identify and guard the new site next to the remaining old shrine (basically a pile of small rocks), now effectively “dead.” He explained the villagers were so happy to have this new site, as they had to otherwise carry their offerings, including a full pig, deep within the mountains.  


The first day we arrived, Dr. Zo whisked us off to join the festivities adjacent to an emerald green and gold rice field for the dedication of the Bang Jangung, (five Warrior Spirit Guardians flags) at the new Mountain God shrine. Dr. Zo had created a multi-colored painting of the bearded spirit with his trusty tiger companion carved into a stone about three feet high. He had designed and had carved additionally two spirit posts that identify and guard the new site next to the remaining old shrine (basically a pile of small rocks), now effectively “dead.” He explained the villagers were so happy to have this new site, as they had to otherwise carry their offerings, including a full pig, deep within the mountains.


To create an economic base for another village of about 10 families, all of who are past childbearing age, he created on his own land a crude three-tiered amphitheater to seat 500. It’s the site of a new annual festival for Founder’s (Tangun) Day (October 3). He is organizing a local enterprise to sell home-cooked foods, beverages and even to provide if necessary, overnight housing. “This village can now continue to have festivals because of our backing,”  

Villagers had taken time from their busy schedule in the rice fields to provide loud percussive shamanist music, and the children paraded in simple costumes up from their school for the occasion. After offerings of fruits, meat, rice wine and money, we all joined the women and together ate a sumptuous meal. This was followed by dancing and impromptu singing. 

All of this work takes years of not only planning, but working in cooperation with village chiefs and elders and residents, with the people who are the caretakers of traditions centuries old and for whom he represents perhaps the only person who still values the foundation of their daily lives. noted Dr. Zo.

They all know of Dr. Zo’s work and its significance to scholars and others worldwide. Yet because of centuries of downplaying -- more accurately denying and discrediting -- the very foundation of Korean culture, his work remains unheralded at the highest level. 

What is so curious at this point, again, is the reaction of the government official, and it is not an isolated response. Last year and again this year, upon visiting a major Korean cultural foundation, I heard the story of how a few years ago at Paris’ Musée d’Homme, a Korean folk art exhibition was cancelled because of protests against the curator’s intention to erect a thatched roof building. Koreans in France objected strongly to being portrayed by thatch; why not tile? And as for the outstanding shamanic material, they would have no part of it. 


Likewise, in an academic conference at UCLA, a Korea-born dance ethnologist, completing her Master’s thesis on the growing number of shamans in Los Angeles and having performed a dance piece choreographed from shamanist material, couldn’t explain comfortably, not to mention with academic coolness or pride, the practical connection of Korean people and their indigenous spiritual practices.




Afterward: There Are No Spectators 2001

I kept up my correspondence with Dr. Zo until the end of 1999. He shared newspaper clippings of his art exhibitions of the icons in the Samshin Halmani Shrine (which were eventually permanently installed) and new sculptures in wood and stone of tokkaebi. He also sent to me a sample of his organization’s annual report, including articles in Korean and an accounting of who donated funds to keep it going. Not having heard from him for a while, I did some research online to see if I could find something about his activities, I found David Mason’s obituary. I then contacted David for details about our mentor’s demise and learned about the gut, shaman ritual that would be held for Dr. Zo on the 100th day of his passing. I made arrangements immediately to attend the rite officiated by Naramansin (national shaman) Kim Keumhwa, one of Horae’s dear friends, and her group, the Association of Preserving West Sea Baeyonshin-Gut and Daedong-Gut. 

To witness such a ritual presented on behalf of someone who deeply believed in its efficacy and by someone who knew it fully was a most amazing experience. On the day of the event, I arrived with Dr. Mason and joined the crowd of about 200 people. It was nice to see them interested, but deeply sad to see how few people understood Horae’s deepest concern: that they would come for the spectacle and leave without contributing to the cost of the ritual, not to mention to the sustainability of the culture itself.

The Hoegwan was at that time fairly well kept. There was evidence that Dr. Zo had been hard at work up to the moment of his death; the massive tokkaebi carvings were displayed, the images of Samshin Halmani were permanently enshrined, and several other structures had been moved about. I felt that Dr. Zo’s spirit was in fact surprised to see everyone celebrating his funeral, as there was abundant life still in the place. Even when the shamans tossed out of the gate his shoes and clothes, one can imagine his spirit soaring over the wall into the center of the courtyard to get back to work.

Not Abandoned But ... 2004

During my trip to Korea in 2004, I again contacted Dr. Mason and suggested that we go to Samshin Hoegwan to see what state it was in. Back in 1997, Dr. Zo told me that he didn’t really care whether the place survived after his death. Had Dr. Zo kept to his word, that he only cared that the place would be intact during his life? Having tried and failed to connect with some of the people whose contact information I had from my visits in 1996 and 1997, I feared for the worse about the state of the facility and its material contents – perhaps an unpublished manuscript and hundreds of photographs that Dr. Zo had taken to document his many events. These photographs were proof-positive that Koreans and non-Koreans alike could enjoy and learn about traditional village culture through his educational activities. 

Kim Keumhwa kindly joined our mission and off we went to Songni-san. She had contacted showed someone at the Hoegwan who met us and let us into the compound. Dr. Zo’s stone carver, who had been living there during his patron’s lifetime, seemed to be default “caretaker-in-residence” of the place. We walked through the gate and were met by tall weeds, dilapidated buildings, water-soaked boxes of photographs, cabins still full of the bedding and musical instruments that Dr. Zo had provided to visitors. It was left as if a group from the city had just enjoyed one of the high-spirited festivals, yet its vulnerability to the elements ... and perhaps abandoned spirits.


The Samshin Halmoni shrine building, however, was intact with no water damage to the artwork. Mansin Kim prepared simple offerings and made prayers in the shrine. We then went off to Horae’s gravesite, on a nearby plot of land that also had several of his stone carvings of his beloved Samshin Halmani. The rest, is of course, history.


Who is bold enough to pick up the mantle where Dr. Zo Zayong left off, especially in this day when a few more Koreans are beginning to learn, appreciate and hunger for traditional roots? He wouldn’t have felt there was much merit to the effort unless people from the city would join with countryside residents to continue to celebrate and sustain vital indigenous spiritual legacy. 


It is time that those of us who are heirs to Dr. Zo’s legacy demand that the tangible and intangible cultural “properties” of Korea’s indigenous legacy be included in major exhibitions of art throughout the world and well-funded by the Korea Foundation, the consulates general and other Korean cultural promotion institutions. In 2002, on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Sa-I-Gu, the April 29, 1992, Los Angeles “Riots”, I had found it exceedingly difficult to secure funding for a Daedong Gut to be performed for the reconciliation and harmony of the community. The Los Angeles Times and other English-language publications were very supportive of this effort, including a very large piece about the event on the front page piece in the Performing Arts section, a spot usually occupied by the latest opera, philharmonic or legitimate theatre programs. 

Programs for school children at every grade need to be exposed to images and values, the music and celebrations of traditional life, if for no other reason than that they are world-class! It is very important that those in key positions know of Dr. Zo’s legacy.

“There are no spectators!” as Horae would say. And he’s still so very right! 




Changes in Zo Zayong’s Art 1997 – 2004


With the help of skilled wood and .stone carvers, painters and other crafts specialists, Dr. Zo created many iconic works of art representing Korea’s indigenous spiritual tradition. Originally sited at the Samshin Hoegwan, they had been moved over time to the site of his tomb and often “refreshed”. These three sets of images, the left being the original locations and renderings, the right the newer ones, show this contrast. The bottom row contains a carved stone that he said was of very ancient image. In the new location, a monument / shrine, likely to a mountain spirit, was constructed of loose stones.

At this writing, it is unknown if any still exist.


* Update Note: For more information on Dr. Zo Zayong, including copies of some of his publications, memorial gatherings and other aspects of his legacy, we are indebted to Professor David A. Mason for many fine entries in his websites, and David has a few remaining copies of some of Dr. Zo’s publications in print as well. Please contact him directly for further information:

Apollogies for the funky layout. Blogspot is notorious for complicating life.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Siskkim Kut for Baruch Goldstein: Thoughts on Current Events and Cross Cultural Values


             In 1994, on the Jewish festival of Purim and during the Moslem Ramadan, American born Israeli citizen Baruch Goldstein, M.D. slaughtered Arabs at prayer in a mosque in the cave of the Machpelah in Hebron, Israel -- the traditional burial place of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a place sacred to Jews, Arabs and Christians. In the course of events, he soon was killed by the survivors on the spot. Rioting, exchanges between then Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat and the action was condemned. 


The circumstances of his unpardonable act were numerous, complex and still debated. He claimed a moral imperative, one whose premise at its root I also share in principle, but I have acted upon quite differently. In the course of the investigation, there arose a general consensus that this situation was more of act of a single man gone mad with the burden of limited mental capacity – like a neighbor who has a "short fuse". 


The fact that he paid for his action with his own death did not produce closure for me, and the fact that the incident is no longer in the headlines for communal discourse is no indication that the matter was then or is now closed. At the time I was looking for some way that the community could acknowledge that what is felt as a moral imperative needs to have a less drastic way to be resolved.


It was, and remains, unfathomable to me that any Jew, especially a religious Jew, would enter that holy space with the intention to kill another human, much less people praying in a sanctuary. Since that time, the events of the wars in the region have made me no less hopeful that humans are, by nature, peace loving, but of course, I am less naive about incidental realities. 


Baruch Goldstein’s action, nonetheless, is part of the lineage of my people’s struggle to survive and flourish, but I found it extremely difficult to just chalk it up to one person’s internal imbalance because at some level, I share his premise, and I carry the burden of his conclusion. Needless to say, I do not condone his means.


I have worked for the “organized” Jewish community as a propagandist, promoting education, awareness and action to support Jewish life in its myriad forms – fragile and powerful -- throughout the world. We had no way to address this type of extra-ordinary behavior, save to wish that it would not have happened.


Within the month of this incident, I attended a staged “performance” at UCLA of Sikkim Gut, a centuries old funeral ritual” conducted by shamans from Chindo Island of the southern coast of Korea. Little did I realize that I would find in this communal ritual a way to recover the hope that it would not happen again. 


                  I have been informally studying the work of the Korean shaman, mudang, for several years and have a keen interest in the evolution of spiritual awareness. So, my expectations ran from expanding my knowledge to being entertained. contribute to my knowledge. It went further than that. 


                  As we know, one of the major differences between performance and ritual is intention. In Hebrew the word is kavanah. During a workshop earlier in the day, the head shaman explained that such ritual was used to cleanse the community as well as the deceased . He also explained the pantheon of spirits they usually invoke in the course of that ritual, but he said that because they weren't actually conducting a funeral, that he would invoke and be appreciative of the presence of any spirits willing to be present in Los Angeles. In addition, the mudang would be seeking good fortune for all present. 


                  Well, if the difference between ritual and performance is intention, and all that they were lacking was the subject of a cleansing funeral, then perhaps I could implicate Baruch Goldstein into that role and coax the performance back into ritual mode, if only for myself. Baruch Goldstein was clearly in need of spiritual cleansing wherever he was, and that the Jewish community had to look itself squarely in the face and take responsibility for the actions of one of its members. He was just a human, like all of us, and something went crazier inside him than in you or me at that time. So, I followed this intention throughout the performance. Perhaps this was the first time a Korean gut was held for an orthodox Jew. 


                  Now, if Baruch Goldstein were alive, he'd probably not be too happy to be associated with this event. But that's the rational mind at work. Nevertheless, whether he or I "believe" in the spirit which needed this ritual was immaterial, if "spirit" really exists. So, I decided to make the "stretch" and address Baruch Goldstein in my imagination and project it through the medium of the Chindo mudang. When I thought it was appropriate, I inserted his name to fill in the blanks. 


                  In the Ch'ong Hon the mudang danced with the chijon (fist-full of white paper streamers), and I settled into the wonderful sound of the musical instrumentalists of the band. Then she eventually placed them down together in front of her at the edge of the stage and sat with them, sort of caressing them. I decided that this was the "body" which was missing from the ritual. I imagined her lyrics to be a recitation of Baruch Goldstein's life, his successes, failures, loves and hates, a lyrical biography which included how he related to the community into which he was born, which nurtured him and of which he was a staunch supporter as an adult. Eventually, the mudang grabbed the chijon and whipped them up, one in each hand and began her energetic dance once again, waving them in Ss and Xs. 


                  If the chijon were his disintegrating mortal remains, she now had captured his soul / spirit in them. I remember reading about a Tibetan Buddhist ritual called chod in which the practitioner envisioned him/herself being devoured, until nothing was left but the blood that was drunk from the skull. Certainly it was not Baruch's body that committed the crime. The body, like the mind, has no "opinions" of its own. When the mudang danced with the chijon, she had indeed invoked Baruch Goldstein's spirit and it was now in her "possession." (Or perhaps she was possessed by it? This distinction I'm still not clear about, not having had the experience of "possession" or sensed that I "possessed" a spirit distinct from myself -- not to mention my own). I may be entirely "wrong" about this, but it doesn't matter because it worked.


                  The second part was the Chesok Kut. While the reference is clearly Korean and Buddhist, nonetheless, it at least asks for good fortune for all of us. Thus, we needed no other explanation, happy to be granted good fortune in any form. We certainly need it.


                  Hon Siskkim Kut, cleansing of the spirit, was a ritual that I knew that Baruch Goldstein needed desperately -- as did I and the community as a whole. He probably needed it before he went into that mosque: the newspapers reported he was thoroughly frustrated over the deaths of a friend and the friend's son by Arab "terrorists," pushing his already well-demonstrated fundamentalist fanaticism to the complete end. It is this part that awoke in me something very unexpected: how in each of us - individually and collectively -- there lies a seed of that same nature which in Baruch Goldstein was pushed to its limit. It is the capacity to be so angry that hate shrouds everything and holds the rational mind a prisoner. In fact, we didn't need a real "dead" body on that stage; we had our own sitting in the seat. In every way, each time the mudang addressed (in my mind) the spirit of Baruch Goldstein; she was speaking to and about us. He was the classic "scapegoat." 


                  One of the most important things I experienced was the notion of asking our now deceased community member to go now. Leave us. Resist attachment to the living and life, as we must not only resist hanging on to you. It also gives us the opportunity to support each other in saying to one of us to lighten up on our own attachment within and to life. It seems a greater comfort to me than ever before. It is the kavanah,the intention. 'I've never addressed a spirit before so directly. This must be one of the facilities of a kut -- to create an environment where this communication can occur free of the burden of fear of the inevitable.


                  How difficult this feels to me. In my few deeply personal losses of loved ones, the connection, conversation seemed more like a lament and an expression of grief. During the performance I again felt how difficult it is for me to detach from my ego, from my habits, from the preconceived notions I have about life and death, from my desires and passions. The ritual was working. I was connecting, not with something Korean or Baruch Goldstein, but something very intimate. 


                  The next part, Kil Takkum, involved using a long stretch of fabric to create the myongdari" along which the spirit of the deceased must travel to the "other world." At this point, with all I had experienced, it was very clear that only with true awareness of who's really getting cleansed from what could anyone's spirit travel -- whether to an "afterlife" or the life each of us faces right here. What must the cleansing be like? What is it like to be so free from attachment? 


                  The "performance" ended with an energetic drum dance, appropriately returning us back to our daily activities with joyous outlook. 


                  I left the auditorium realizing the importance of gut in human life, whether it is here or in Korea, whether conducted in Hebrew or Korean -- but essentially the language "intention." How sad it has been that such rituals have been socially suppressed and our minds poisoned to reject them. I told a friend of mine that to go further toward my deep appreciation of shamanism, I had to "step aside" from my disbelief, not actually turn it into belief. It hasn't been easy. There's four decades of skepticism in there. But an equal amount of passion to go on We are fortunate enough to be able to have access to those people who, for whatever reason, do "believe" and are accept the responsibility on behalf of others. What is left for the rest of us is to honor the tradition on its face value. 


Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Glass Mechitzah Part 1: YouTube’s View From on Higher

(Note: This was originally published in 2013, way before the productions of the acclaimed Shtisel and Unorthodox, which give more insight into the private lives of albeit fictional characters portraying life in the ultra-Orthodox communities in the Diaspora.)

As the first bas mitzvah (Ashkenazi not the now politically correct Sephardi "bat") of a reform temple in the 1960s (and only one for several years following), I was quickly made aware that boys’ ritual needs trumped those of girls: when my classmate with whom I shared a birthday got the shabbos that corresponded to the date; I learned early that I had to find my own joy in the life that unfolded in front of me. Being fond of color, I was thrilled when my parasha (a month later) ended up being “Vayeshev”, Joseph’s coat of many colors, a keepsake I still treasure and hope to understand one day. All the fuss and excitement that followed kept me on course with my Jewish learning. Later, after having exhausted the balance of formal religious school, the boy (now a “man”) and I (an teenage girl) leaned Pirke Avos in a special class with the rabbi. Early into the book we read the phrase, “One should not engage in much gossip with women...” I decided this girl was not going to take it any more and stopped the lesson for good. 

It was further clear that I couldn’t wait for that joy to find me.

Since those days I have respectfully explored the Jewish world first hand to make sure that I had a sense of what is going on and, more important, and did what I could to fee; included and close to the source. My forays from women’s farbrengens with the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights NY  (“Why didn’t they have a respected woman speak to us? Rabbi XYtz is a learned man.) to dropping in on the last bar mitzvah in Bulowayo Zimbabwe (What do you mean you don’t know where the women sit!) , from trying to get into a mikveh in Los Angeles (“I never said I was married.”) to Jewish feminist Tu b’Av retreats in Mendocino CA (“What happens in Mendocino, stays in Mendocino!”), I remain deeply uncomfortable with the separation of sexes by a mechitza, the physical barrier that is erected between women and men during public prayer. 

Furthermore, it became apparent only decades later, that I realized the most exciting role models in my life were the "chiefs", all male, blooming with very cool outfits, like the males of most animal species, such as the eagle feathered headdresses and war paint worn by native Americans ... and, it seems, the tribal uniforms of Chassidim whose affiliation can often be recognized by the type of hat, fedoras in black of course, or the shape of the streimel of the fur variety.

It’s not that I need to stand shoulder to shoulder with or even be surrounded by men at that time, it’s just that the ark containing the Torah is usually on their side. I know that vision is made in the brain where two images come together. My eyesight is compromised enough that it presents a partial vision of the world in front of me. But for once, I want to be in the presence of something whole. Hugely Jewish, yet intimate. Fabulous. The living presence of those iconic images of a Jew who was not engaged in housework or child rearing.

What if, I pondered, it were a glass wall? 

You mean like the glass ceiling?

Enter YouTube ... 

Despite extraordinary efforts on the parts of some “extremely orthodox” (a term that is not redundant in Jewish circles, unlike slightly pregnant) community rulers to put a hex if not altogether ban the Internet and its lascivious content, women and the rest of the entire world may now see some of the sights to which we would otherwise not have been privy.  

The glass wall!

Not so fast ... In May 2012 the Citi Field baseball stadium in New Jersey was crammed literally to the brim with black-hatted, etc. Haredim men for the seven hour Asifa convocation to denounce the Internet’s ubiquitous content, if not also the connection itself. There seemed to be some disparity as to the point of concern: the additive qualities or the worldviews. (Current monitoring of North Korean news provides some frightening comparisons.)

No women were invited because no women were allowed ... because public prayer would be held. The field was de-womaned to the extreme: a sponsor’s huge billboard bearing the image of a woman on the label of the hot sauce was covered. Sure they could put women in the bleachers, but not this group. Boys to men came by every possible means of transportation, from ferries to buses from throughout the near and far world and constituted what must be the largest gathering for Yiddish language (for the most part) speeches in history --- estimates of 60,000 required 20,000 to sit in the adjoining Arthur Ashe Tennis Stadium and view the proceedings via satellite feed on monitors. My favorite one is from the feed showing two ferries full of praying Chassidim en route.

Wish I had been there ... My relatives would have poo-poo'd it. I think that one of my great grandfathers was kicked out of the house because he studied too much and didn't work to support his six (or seven) children. We were modern even then.The historic visits of rebbes to their contemporaries, such as The Sephardic Chief Rabbi Rabbi Ovadia Yosef to the Beltzer Rebbe, or the procession in Boro Park of the sifrei Torahs from their old stiebel to a new one is sweet. The most poignant one I have seen – and had my heart broken each time -- is the Horowitz Brothers singing “Av Harachamim” in the crematoria at Auschwitz.Since this is the season of redemption, I definitely recommend the posts about and from Women of the Wall, the pluralistic group of women in Israel (now supported around the world) who are demonstrating their right to pray aloud, with tefilin, talis and sefer Torah scrolls on the women’s “side” of the Western Wall. To achieve social, legal and religious equality at this important site will be a major achievement that, no doubt, will be available for view on YouTube. My article about them may be found here. See "The Glass Mechitzah Part 2: Which Side Are You On?"With all due respect – to those who find the Charedim at best out of date – and those who are trying to maintain focus while the world has literally opened up without filter -- I love the internet and especially YouTube for a glimpse beyond every-day abilities. I am happy to see the 2009 posting of the Abudaya (Uganda) shirat hayam weekday services at the Moses Synagogue at Nabugoye where men and women are “simply” separated by nothing but an aisle. (You can hear the woman's (far right) voice.) There are too many here to mention, so go and explore by yourself. 

There are many interesting details about the experience that have been reported (check “asifa” on YouTube and watch the endless hours of speeches, prayers and other images (smartphones!!!) but none as courageously captured than that for a high – tech blog,, by Adrianne Jeffries who, in true “Yentl” fashion bound herself up, added some convincing peyos to a borrowed hat and suit and snuck into the mix. Brava! Brava! 

Many cult-ish groups seek to restrict / protect their members from distraction by “outside” influences for their own good. In this day forward (one opinion) of the Internet, the notion, much less reality, that there is life beyond the eruv, another physical barrier that defines a community’s neighborhood as an extended “house”, seems to be impossible to secure. It would be like telling someone never, ever, to look up at the stars. I remember the time when “surfaced” from a trip to the depth of the Grand Canyon and was sharing the beauty with a native American woman who worked the cafeteria steam table. She quietly remarked that according to her tradition, people were even forbidden to look into it, as it is the center of creation! Can they rely on their adherents not to stray? These Haredim are trying, with various blocks to sites and even matchmakers who are instructed to check if the potential spouse comes from a family with internet connection.

We still can view here the official satellite feed and available, later, to families (women) at home via closed circuit ... and “not on any website”, according to the chair of the event. One can easily see people taking photos / videos? with smart phones ... irresistible!
Certainly there are Jews who forbid the taking of photographs of themselves, but there are clearly many who wish to share, even if its just with each other, the celebrations, mitzvahs and presentations of their learned rebbes. Case in point are the many YouTube postings of wedding mitzvah-tanzes of various Chassidic communities around the Great New York Metro area.

For example, at this writing there are 342,719 views of the Satmar Rebbe Aron Teitelbaum’s mitzvah-tanz (3:08 minutes). The wedding took place in Monroe NY in 2006 and the video is professionally produced. In it the lone woman, in a bridal gown, is tethered to the elder man, who is decked out in his gold brocade caftan, white stockings and a streimel (mink fur hat). They are tethered together by his 100' white gartel (cloth that he wears around his waist on Shabbos and holy days to distinguish the upper and lower parts of the body) and are “dancing” in a tent the size of an airplane hanger. All around him thousands of black and white clothed males of all ages are singing and clapping along with piped in music, and swaying like a "wave" done in sports stadia. There are many, many other videos from Bobovs and Lubavitch, from holidays and special teachings, like this inter-denominational presentation by Lubabitcher bochurem who entertained at the Satmar rebbe’s tish (teach-in) juggling and acrobatics on the tish (literally, table).

Of course YouTube is also making great Jewish learning opportunities available to us. For example, the 12th Siyum HaShas of Daf HaYomi made by Agudath Yisroel that took place in MetLife Stadium on August 2012 is a seven hour delight that begins with a great statement about life long learning. (For a quick jump to the music and dancing, click here.)