Jay and Keum-won Kronish were looking for flights out of Korea when the Israeli ambassador called. There was a problem, he told them. Keum-won knew immediately what was wrongâthe ambassador had asked her, a Korean native and American resident who’d retired in Israel, to find someone in Busan to lead the city’s first Israeli cultural center. And she had done thisâtwo years ago. Unfortunately, the person she recruited for the position had backed out, leaving the ambassador with a headless operation and many gears already in motion. So he asked her, flat-out, over the phone: Why don’t you and your husband do it?
Jay Kronish, now sitting in the newly-minted Israel House in the Centum City district of Busan, shakes his head in disbelief. And my wife said yes.
There’s a poster of the Hebrew alphabet behind him, while authentic Jewish memorabiliaâa menorah, a prayer shawl, biblical statuesâdecorate the walls to his left. I, on the other hand, would have had to think about it, he continues. We were planning on returning to Israel and living in Israel. We had no intention of living in Korea. Our life was in Israel… But when I thought about it, I realized what an incredible opportunity it was.
The project was simple. The Israeli ambassador in South Korea, Tuvia Israeli, decided that Israel needed a stronger presence in the country.
Everybody that comes from Israel goes to Seoul, he’d told the Kronishes. Has meetings in Seoul, mixes with government people in Seoul, does everything in Seoul.
The Busan Israel House would receive complete political and practical, although not financial, support from the government of Israel. This put a lot of pressure on the Kronishes.
In the five months between the House’s grand opening on March 4 and the ambassador’s phone call last November, Jay Kronish flew back to Israel alone in a three-week-long mad dash around Jerusalem. He had to not only settle his and his wife’s personal issues, such as the house they’d already rented and the car that needed to be sold, but also hunt down worthy Jewish art and artifacts to ship back to Busan in time for the opening.
Kronish, a former spa and restaurant owner, knocked on the doors of friends and recommended associations, armed only with 30 years of customer service and a personal letter from the ambassador. As soon as he showed Israelis the letter, he says, their doors opened wide with enthusiasm.
Somebody asked me, âHow many Jews are there in Busan?’ Kronish recalls. I said, uh… four? I dunno!
The Israel House opened in early March, 2013. It’s a reasonably large space, and feels empty without bodies filling it. But the openness is purposeful: It’s not really meant to be a museum, Kronish explains, going into some detail about the performances and lectures he envisions, the monthly movie screenings, dance shows and Hebrew language classes that are already beginning to clutter the Israel House’s 2013 calendar.
Remembrance of a tragic past
The Holocaust Museum section of the Israel House occupies its own room, apart from the Israeli exhibits. It’s a small single room, practically wallpapered with dozens of black-and-white photographs of genocide, concentration camps and impoverished Jews, their faces dirty and sullen. A widescreen TV plays, on repeat, an hour long slideshow of similarly depressing images, while a large poster in the middle of the wall compiles a heavy list of historical genocide, including Cambodia, Rwanda and the Japanese occupation of South Korea.
This museum was Kronish’s own contribution, and is the first in Asia outside of Israel. He disregards the notion that East Asia had nothing to do with the Holocaust, and insists that everybody needs some kind of a fundamental experience of change within themselves, that they will be moved to take a stand.
Here, perhaps unconsciously, he begins to raise his voice in angered excitement. This placeâwhich is a place of understanding and toleranceâthis is really what the Jewish nation speaks to, that the inclusion of all these different cultures, as a Jewish nation, is about tolerance.
He pauses and takes a breath, then suddenly lowers his voice. Of course it doesn’t work perfectly. But that’s what it’s about. That’s what the museum’s about. We want people to go, âOh, God, ah! That’s terrible! I can’t let that happen!’
Kronish grew up in a house frequented by Puerto Ricans, Hungarians, Japanese and, of course, Jews, in the kind of multicultural Californian suburb where neighbors’ doors were always open. Everybody came to our house, and we went to everybody’s house, he remembers. He followed this lifestyle to the doorstep of prominent national civil rights groups, as the only white guy working in offices with black people.
In August, 1963, an impressionable young Kronish traveled over 2,500 miles to witness Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech, surrounded by 250,000 Americans gathered around the Washington Monument. I was very far away, but the speakers were very big and very loud, he recalls. It was a dream. It was like being in a dream of hope. This man represented the hope of humanity.
That colorless hope followed him for the next 40 years. He married a Korean woman in the US (longer ago than I have a memory of) and briefly retired with her in Israel before being all but summoned to live in Busan.
The Israeli connection
When you find a country that is Israel-friendly, you grow it, the Israeli ambassador once told Kronish. But South Korea is more than just Israel-friendly; from a distance, the two are practically parallel states. Both are home to repressed, centuries-old civilizations, but were only legally created by the UN around the 1950s; both were forcibly divided by arbitrary political lines and remain at war with their closest neighbors; both demand mandatory military service and boast among the heaviest and most advanced armies in the world; and both are frankly tiny nations, necessarily cozied up to American military might.
Israel’s relationship with South Korea has developed strangely and quickly in the last decade. Israelis have in fact been thirsting for Korean culture since 2003, when My Lovely Sam Soon, an internationally popular Korean drama,hit the Holy Land with force. As recently as 2011, Israeli Hallyu fans werestarting to cook Korean meals they’d seen on TV.
According to a recent Jerusalem Post article, around 40,000 Koreans visited Israel in 2012, more than any other Asian country. Only 12,000 Israeli tourists reciprocated, which doesn’t sound significant until one recalls that Israel’s population is 7.6 million, roughly one seventh of South Korea’s.
This was the ambassador’s dream: to have a Jewish presence, an Israeli presence in this international city of Busan, Kronish says. It was destined for my wife and I do to it. That’s really how I feel.
- Along with its extensive display of books and historical materials, the Israel House will also feature Hebrew classes, international symposiums, seminars, various exhibitions, friendship performances and fairs. Opening hours are from Tuesday to Saturday 10 a.m. – 6 a.m.
- Getting there: Walk out Centum City subway station exit 4. Walk north around 10 minutes until you get to the Centum ‘IS’ Tower. The House is located in suite #709.
- Ph: 51-780-8946 www.israelhouse.org
- Busan Israel House will feature two photo exhibitions through the month of April: The Dead Sea in Color & 1947-1957, the First Ten Years in Black and White
Main photo by Michael Fraiman. Additional photos courtesy of the Busan Israel House.