The Jewish Mermaid

May 10, 2009

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

The newlyweds during the Korean pyebaek ceremony

For years, I sat in the judgment of my mother-in-law who taught me Jewish law and told me her family’s Holocaust stories until the two of us ended up eating chocolate Dove bars in a depressive gloom. I mirrored her as best I could, copying her recipes until my father-in-law and husband could not tell the difference between her cooking and mine. I joked to her, “Aren’t you glad I’m a convert? I don’t know any better than what you’ve taught me. I’ll never argue with you on the traditions!” She loved hearing that.

It was a sensitive and precarious time full of transitions and new identities, from Christian to Jew, from Miss to Mrs, and trying to integrate into a new family. My entire focus was on trying to become accepted.

But in the end, my mother-in-law never did accept me. Something about me was unlovable to her, even though I was living the Jewish life I was supposed to.

That’s a lesson learned—that you cannot convert to Judaism for a person, because that will break your heart. But in the end, I discovered a great love for the religion, and a renewed strength in myself. And of course, I had my one true love, my husband.

I’m reminded of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale—of the mermaid who wanted to be human in order to be with her lover. In many ways my choice to be Jewish was influenced by this drive to connect to my one true love, who happened not to be Korean but to be Jewish. The mermaid could only be accepted in human form, and my husband’s family could only accept me as a Jew.

So I took that leap.

Then I remembered the mermaid sacrificed her voice to be with her true love; I had done the same, casting aside so much to be accepted by my mother-in-law and other Jews.

“Did you know the mermaid dies at the end?” asked my friend, alarmed that I chose this fairytale as a symbol of my journey into Judaism.

I do know she dies. But the story takes a turn for me. After I lost my voice, I rebelled. I paired kimchi alongside matzo ball soup. I began to push my mother-in-law to understand that I was also Korean and not just a mirror image of her. She didn’t take it too well. For any attempt on my part to include my Korean heritage, she responded in kind with more Jewish teachings. As if my Korean heritage would erode away at anything Jewish. We are no longer on speaking terms and my life is more integrated than ever.

In contrast, my husband embraces my Korean heritage as much as I embrace his. He knows about as much Korean as I know Hebrew.

I have not regretted this Jewish journey. And unlike the mermaid who could never visit her family again nor return to her mermaid form I have not had to sacrifice my Korean heritage in order to be Jewish. In fact, I have picked up another culture from which to draw additional strength and resources and values. Acceptance be damned. Our household is two cultures, one religion, and it is definitely good enough.


Photos from Christine Lee Zilka


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