I didn’t even know that women could become rabbis, let alone a woman whose mother is a Korean Buddhist! To my surprise, I encountered Angela Buchdahl: the world’s first Jewish-Korean female cantor and rabbi, presiding over Central Synagogue, one of our country’s largest and most beautiful synagogues in the middle of Manhattan. Angela inherited her Judaism through her father, and not, as traditionally defined, through her mother. If there is an icon of multiculturalism in the contemporary Jewish tradition, it is Angela Buchdahl. Angela was not only educated at Yale (as I was; I just work at Harvard!), but was also one of the first female members of the fabled Yale Secret Society called “Skull and Bones.”
I have to confess that I was a bit worried about what we could find on Angela’s family tree. First of all, finding the lineages of eastern European Jews can be as difficult as penetrating the dense veil that hides the facts of birth, marriage and death for African American slaves, and for exactly the same reason: the paper trail often doesn’t exist. Secondly, we had no idea about the status of records in Korea, especially for women. When we did the family tree of Yo-Yo Ma in China, we were incredibly lucky to find his clan genealogy, which had been passed down for almost three centuries from an oldest male in each generation to the oldest male in the next generation, etc. We were able to identify Yo-Yo’s 20th great grandfather (check!), born in 1217. In Yo-Yo’s case, all of the females on his family tree were identified only as “Female.” Korea is not China, of course; I didn’t even know if clan genealogies existed there. Since Angela had embraced her Jewish heritage so thoroughly, I wanted to introduce her to her Korean ancestors as far back in time as her Jewish relatives. And I didn’t want to let my fellow Yalie and my new- favorite rabbi down.
What we are able to learn about Angela’s Korean ancestors astonished us, and her. This newfound knowledge has inspired Angela to explore her Korean ancestry now as deeply as she has explored her Jewish heritage. I can only believe that this process will enrich her practice of Judaism, just as her Judaism will be a frame through which she can further embrace her Korean heritage.
Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Rick Warren, Angela Buchdahl, and Yasir Qadhi.