Chutzpah in Korean

Thomas Lee

One languorous summer Tuesday after their junior year at Paul Robeson High School, James Kim and Jeremy Meyers sat in the airy central food court of the new mega-mall in Montgomery, New Jersey, drinking granular fruit smoothies and brainstorming ways to get into a top-tier college.  Since their school of 1800 students had sent only three of its graduating class to U.S. News top-ten schools the prior year and university acceptance rates were continuing to plummet, James was quite worried.

Jeremy said, “You’re third in the class. That gets you Ivy League for sure.”

“That’s what everyone thought about Joanne Langbein last year.  She didn’t even get into Duke,” James replied.  His class rank and 96% percentile on the SATs seemed pedestrian compared to those who cadged acceptances from elite schools in the recent past.

“Well, I’d be lucky to get in anywhere.” James pitied Jeremy’s meager stats.  88% on the SATs, barely in the top 10% of his class, and only one meaningful after school activity: editor-in-chief of the school’s online arts journal.

Jeremy said, “Columbia? What if I use some kinda angle? Like I’m all urban chic or something?”

“Columbia was nine percent last year.  Man, we all need an angle,” James said.

“Twinkie boy!” shouted a burly, but well-coiffed Asian teen named Min sitting by the food court’s burrito stand.  James was hardly offended though the Twinkie comment (yellow on the outside, white in the inside) was a reference to his choice of friends. Min was with a bunch of other Asian males in hoodies and designer jeans, the standard dress for the Bad-ass Korean clique.  Other than their ghetto-chic style, the Bad-ass Koreans distinguished themselves with their excessive use of premium hair products. They bullied the other Korean male clique, the Tech Dorks, out of the food court months before.

James retorted, “Yeah, that’s a good one, cool Asian guy. Take a bus to New York and see how long it takes the black guys to stop laughing at you.”

“Little sell-out!” Min shouted.

“Whatever, cool Asian guy.  You keep trying with that look. You might impress a Filipino or something.”

Jeremy intervened, “Chill. We’re gonna get our asses kicked.” James was 5’9” and too scrawny to participate in any sports teams other than track. Jeremy was very tall, but his lanky limbs had more hair than muscle, and did not look like they would be effective in a fight.

“What are they gonna do?  All their parents go to my dad’s church.  Beating up the preacher’s kid doesn’t go over too well with my people.”

“Well being a rabbi’s son has probably saved my ass a few times too, but don’t test the congregation, man.” James’ dad was the minister at the local Korean Presbyterian church, which had about 300 members. Jeremy’s was the rabbi at the county’s largest temple. James and Jeremy grew up as best friends and next-door neighbors with their nearly identical ranch-style homes forming the town’s holiest cul-de-sac at the end of Meadowbrook Road.

“Dude, your people aren’t as tribal as mine,” James said. His taste for indie rock band T-shirts and Seventies film noir made him unable to blend with either Korean boy clique.

Jeremy responded, “You kidding me? Do you know anything about Jew history?

“I mean now, not Moses-era. The Jew yearbook girls, the Young Democrats, they don’t call you an Asian wannabe or some shit like that cuz you’re sitting with me.”

“No. They just think I’m trying to screw your mom.”

Although they attended a school named after a black activist, students from Paul Robeson never seriously discussed racial issues. The district’s board of education changed the name of the school from Alexander Hamilton to Paul Robeson during James’ freshman year for reasons that were not entirely clear to the students.  The erstwhile Alexander Hamilton High was 65% WASP, 25% Jewish, and 10% Asian, and had no African American students. Publicly, the board only expressed admiration for the edifying example set by Paul Robeson’s life, but James heard rumors that naming the school after a black activist would make the school’s SAT scores, lackluster for a prosperous suburb, seem relatively high compared to others named for black activists. 

“Well, maybe we have an angle,” James said. “We’re like a Jew-Asian version of Ebony and Ivory.”

Jeremy said, “You mean, because we’re the only Jew and Asian who hang out in this town, we’ll get into Stanford?  I doubt it.”

“No. Use your imagination, man. We need to stir things up.”

“There’s nothing to stir in this town, man. It’s a dead swamp.”



On an October Sunday, as he sat on the floor of Jeremy’s cluttered little bedroom, James grew frustrated as he watched Jeremy draw another naked Asian girl. Phase I of their plan was about to come to fruition and he wanted every detail to be perfect.

“Hey, draw the cock bigger, and her mouth smaller,” James said.

The cock, attached to a caricature of Joe Gold, president of the Debate Club, already resembled a distended foot-long sausage that had been in the microwave too long. Kneeling before him was Mindy Lee, school cheerleader and on the top five of any list of most popular girls at Paul Robeson.  Her mouth was so engorged with Joe’s exaggerated member that she resembled a boa constrictor about to swallow a goat that would digest in its innards until spring.

James continued his nagging criticism.  “I think her hands should be smaller too. She needs to be holding it like a baseball bat.”

“She’s got really big hands, actually. I’ve seen her in gym.  She can palm a basketball,” Jeremy replied.

“I know that! Ever heard of artistic liberties?”

“I’m not doing another one. This one took me an hour.”

“All right. This is good enough I guess.”

“Good enough? This is fucking brilliant.  Everyone will know that’s Mindy Lee. I even got the mole on her neck perfect,” Jeremy said.

“Yeah, it’s good. But remember, this was my idea.”

“Whatever. If we get caught, you’ll say it was all me.”

“We won’t get caught. Dude, Ivy League for sure.”

“You’d get into Ivy anyway. This will make you HYP for sure.”

“And you, man. This will help you get into a four year college, for real.”

“Shut up, man. Top twenty after this.”

“When we hit the school with this….oh, this is gonna be beautiful.”

Jeremy tackled James and the two jocularly wrestled on the ground for a few minutes until Rabbi Meyers screamed at them to pipe down.

When school let out the next day, James and Jeremy hid in the closet of the art journal office, which Jeremy held the keys to as editor-in-chief, while the janitor locked up.

After an uncomfortable hour spent cramped among paint cans and canvasses, passing time playing PSP’s on mute, they climbed out to fulfill their plan. They went to their lockers and gathered twenty portraits drawn by Jeremy, each portraying a different popular Asian girl from Paul Robeson totally naked on her knees with her mouth around a Jewish boy’s cock.  Mindy Lee with Joe Gold. Janet Cho with David Hammerstein. Amy Kim (the hottest of them all) with Jeremy.  Jeremy endowed each of their girlish teen bodies with anatomically impossible pornographic curves and gravity-defying nipples. Each generously enlarged Jewish boy wore a yarmulke and held a flag of Israel.

At the school’s main office, they made 50 copies of each portrait, 1000 flyers in all.  After a couple of hours of plastering, the concrete hallways of Paul Robeson transformed into a gallery for Jeremy’s ribald artwork. 

The next morning, James feigned horror as best he could, saying to Mr. Noah, his bearded homeroom teacher who always emitted a faint hashish odor, “This is a crime from a different era.”

Mr. Noah replied, “It’s despicable, James. I’m so sorry you had to see this.”

The school administrators held four straight emergency meetings at the auditorium, one for each grade, starting with the seniors.  James sat next to Jeremy during the meeting as the school principal, a neckless, bald bulldog of a man, groused belligerently, “We are going to find out who did this. Given how much time this took, we think there was more than one of you involved. When we get you, and make no mistake, we will get you, there will be serious consequences.”

All the other students stared dumbfounded at each other, seeming to expect the melodrama of a public confession.

“Anyone have anything to say?” the principal demanded.

James raised his hand and stood, “I don’t know who did this, sir, but I have a sister.  She’s in the eighth grade. What am I supposed to tell her? That this is how everyone will see her next year when she gets to high school?”

Jeremy stood up, “I can only sympathize with my friend, sir.  His family has been dehumanized, sir.”

James surreptitiously stepped on Jeremy’s foot. Too much.

The principal replied with cloying paternalism, “Son, you can tell her that we’ll get to the bottom of this, and that, despite it all, this is a beautiful country that will judge her only by her character.”

The school cafeteria was restive at lunch. The gym teachers, with their blue jumpsuits and whistles, became impromptu security guards posted at each corner just in case of any violence.   Min of the Bad-ass Koreans approached James as he ate curly fries next to Jeremy.

“We want to know if your friend knows anything,” Min demanded.

“Why don’t you ask him, cool Asian guy?” James responded.

“Stop calling me that.”

“That hair, so intricately layered and gelled. What else could I possibly call you?”

Min put his finger in James’ face, “You’re gonna get beat someday, I swear. But right now, I just want to know, does your Jew-friend know who did those pics?”

“He’s sitting right there. Ask him yourself.”

“He won’t tattle. Not to me.”

“And I would?”

“You’re still Korean. I think, anyway.” 

“I’m Korean? Really? That explains the eyes, doesn’t it?”

“So Rabbi-stein doesn’t know anything?”

“Let me ask him.  Hey, Jeremy, cool Asian guy wants to know if one of your Hebrew brethren drew those dick pictures.”

Jeremy shrugged.

“You wanna waterboard him?  We could probably get some names that way.”

“Well, one way or another, we’re gonna find out.”



James and Jeremy had spray paint, a Korean flag and ten pounds of raw bacon ready for Phase II of their plan.  They would have used those materials to deface Jeremy’s own temple with indelicate symbolism, pinning the blame on the Bad-ass Koreans, if not for an intervening tragedy.

The morning before they planned to vandalize the temple, the local weekly newspaper blared, “Paul Robeson Senior Severely Beaten.”  Over a box of Honeynut Cheerio’s, James read that three kids in ski-masks mercilessly attacked David Hammerstein while he was walking home after marching band practice. They left no damning clues, though the suburban police deduced the trio were members of the golf team since they took a seven-iron to the poor kid’s shins.  

At school, James learned from Jeremy that David attempted to defend himself by using his feckless trombone to bludgeon his attackers, but was quickly overmatched and crumpled up like a potato-bug to protect his vital organs as he begged for mercy in Mrs. Rubino’s front lawn. Since all twenty-seven members of the golf team were Korean, and all had taken an obstinate “I am Spartacus” vow of solidarity, the police could not determine which individuals were responsible.   The school suspended the entire golf team for the season as the police pressed on with their investigation.



At dinnertime in the Kim household, as James sat at the cramped Formica kitchen table eating a bowl of oxtail soup, he said to his quiet family, “Mom and Dad, I think this madness must come to an end.”

“Are you mocking us?” his rotund dad responded, his eyes widening defensively.

“Since Jeremy and I have been such good friends over the years, we thought that we could teach other Jews and Asians how to get along.”

“He’s mocking you, dad.” His twiggy sister responded, looking up from her cellphone to shake her head at James.

“Shut up, you little bimbo.”

“Don’t call your sister that!” James’ equally twiggy mom rebuked.

“I’m serious for once, mom.” James’ entreated. “This is getting bad. Can I be serious for just one time in my life?”

“So what is it you want us to do?” his dad asked.
“We’re in a unique position, Dad. You’re the best-known minister of the Koreans.  Rabbi Meyers is the best-known rabbi in town. We live next to each other and your sons are best friends.”

“So, you want me to go next door and make friends with the rabbi? We haven’t said much to each other since the crabgrass outbreak.”

“It’s so simple, dad.  We can have all the Jews over at our church on Sunday. We can have a service about healing.”

“Have them over the Korean church?”

“Yes. And we’ll pray together. Pray for our sins, and for our forgiveness, and for mutual understanding.”

James could tell that his mom, dad and sister awaited a sarcastic punch line that he refused to deliver.



That Sunday, James and Jeremy were passing out music sheets to the dual congregation. There were reporters present from the town weekly, the county daily, and even a local cable news outlet.

“What do these funny symbols mean?” Jeremy said.

“It’s Korean, dumbass. It’s ‘Kumbaya’ phonetically spelled out.”

“I have to admit, ‘Kumbaya’ was a bit of genius.”

“The media coverage is sweet. I knew you Jews owned the media.”

“My dad made a few calls. That’s all it took.”

“We are gonna have the best college essays of all time, complete with article clippings and video.”

All the school’s Jewish kids showed up with their parents, unwilling to miss the only event in town to get news coverage since a registered sex offender moved into an apartment in Edgewood Center.  Even David Hammerstein came, wearing casts on both legs, wheeled in by his father.

The Koreans stood, graciously giving up their seats to their guests, until the Jewish families insisted that they all squish together in the pews. When the pews were full, Jeremy and James sat up front by the pulpit in seats usually reserved for the church elders.

After a long speech about the need for outreach between two broken communities, Rabbi Meyers ended with, “And I don’t want to seem self-indulgent, but I think God will forgive me if I go on a bit about my son.  He’s the best friend of Reverend Kim’s son. Look at these two, these compassionate young men, coming to their fathers with this great idea. Sitting side-by-side, showing us all, adults and children, what our communities can achieve with a little understanding.”

The news cameras focused on James and Jeremy as they stood side-by-side and lead the congregation in Kumbaya.  Jews and Koreans held hands across the pews, the adults staring at each other with looks of skittish politeness, and their children stifling cynical chuckles.

As he sang, James remembered when he was twelve years old, and invited to a weekend getaway to the Meyers’ summer cabin in the Poconos, situated beside an alluvial stream that rambled along an emerald hill of pines. He remembered at the Meyers’ family dinner table, where James had been seated between Jeremy and Jeremy’s grandmother, Rabbi Meyers had asked him over a steaming pot roast, “So I hear you’re quite smart, James. With those brains, what is it you want to become when you’re older?”

“A success,” James had replied.

Mr. Meyers had flashed an avuncular smile, “Good answer. You know what that takes?”

James had shrugged his shoulders and there had been an uneasy lull broken only when Jeremy’s grandmother, a wan prune of a woman who sat in a non-contemplative silence most of the time, had yelled, “I know it what it takes!  It takes chutzpah, boy! You know what chutzpah is?”

Chutzpah. It was the funniest word James had ever heard, a word with the same oral motions as gathering phlegm and spitting. James recalled laughing at the word, laughing so hard as to be rude, like he might be mocking the old woman, though he was just tickled by the delicious cacophony of those two syllables. 

“Chutzpah,” James thought as he watched the news cameras close tighter on his face, the word still resounding in his memory with wicked beauty.

“Chutzpah,” he muttered under a burgeoning chorus of Kumbaya.