How I’m Studying Korean (part 1)


Yes, I’m using my pandemic time to study Korean. No, I don’t think this is the perfect time to study a language, or make sourdough bread, or write the great American novel. I think it’s a great time to listen to yourself and find out what you do when the world stops. I happen to be someone who starts studying Korean, gets addicted to it, finds themselves making flashcards at 1 a.m. and procrastinating all the things they probably SHOULD be doing by watching videos of Ollie studying Korean. I’ll probably give up soon, when life resumes, or when it gets too hard. What do I care, this part is fun.

On to the good stuff.

First Step Korean, Coursera

After watching a few YouTube videos and learning the basics of Hangul, I found a five-week beginner Korean course on Coursera called First Step Korean. I used it because I wanted structure, and since it’s free, it didn’t seem like a huge commitment. On the plus side, the structure is indeed great, and each lesson has a video, lesson notes, and a quiz. On the other hand, the course is pretty boring and doesn’t offer a ton of review, since the practice questions in the lesson notes are the same as in the videos. I had to watch each video twice, once to get a basic understanding, and once to actually follow along with the examples. It’s certainly not perfect, but it’s a really good place to start.

Quizlet (/using my phone’s Korean handwriting keyboard)

One other good thing about First Step Korean is that it has prepared Quizlet flashcards, and I love Quizlet. Well, maybe not love, but I’ve been using it since like 2009. I downloaded the app, and did most of the studying on my phone, because it has a keyboard option that lets you handwrite Hangul, which is a lot easier than painstakingly typing, and you practice writing at the same time! (Though you definitely don’t learn the whole proportion thing.)

I exported the FSK flashcards and re-uploaded them in much smaller sets by category because that felt saner to me. You can find both the originals and my versions here.

YouTube (Korean Unnie, Jolly, TTMIK)

I supplemented FSK with Korean Unnie‘s YouTube playlist that goes through all the letters. I like that she shows you how they’re supposed to be written, and a lot of the other knowledge she throws in. I’m still looking for a better guide on a pronunciation though.

Honestly, if you only take one piece of advice from here it’s to go watch Ollie studying Korean on the Jolly YouTube channel. Mostly because it’s hilarious, and a little bit because it actually teaches you a few things, and makes you realize how hard/fun learning a language is. But also because it will lead to Korean Englishman’s channel, and lots of other YouTube content in Korean.

Finally, the TTMIK (talk to me in Korean) videos are super useful. I find that it helps to have both a structured class like FSK, alongside more piecemeal explanations that start to give you a feel for the language even if it’s maybe beyond your level.

Korean dramas!

Obviously, I mean what is all this for?

Eli Wiesel

Written after his passing in 2016.

For a long time I thought Eli Wiesel was my favorite author, and as such I have a hard time believing my writing could ever do his justice. He’s still one of my favorite authors, mostly for what he taught me about the power of language.

My favorite book of his that I’ve read is “The Trial of God.” It’s a play, set in the 1600s, about three traveling minstrels who spend the night in the village of Shamgorod. The inn is owned by Berish, the only remaining Jew in the village after a recent pogrom on the night of his daughter’s wedding. It’s Purim night and the minstrels should be doing their spiel, laughing and celebrating but there’s no one for whom to perform. As the night wears on, Berish derisively suggest that as a form of Purim spiel they should put God on trial.

The play is three acts. It never leaves Berish’s inn. Of the bards, one is a joker, one a wagon-driver, and the third a begger and mystic who makes cryptic but profound statements. A large chunk of the play is a verbal quarrel about who should defend god; nobody wants to take the role. The play is somehow darkly funny despite the themes, and despite the fact that it is based on an actual trial of God that Wiesel witnessed in Auschwitz. Wiesel plays with the themes of loss and faith and tragedy in a fashion that is so human, so sensitive, and so uniquely Hasidic.

Mendel (minstrel 1): You forget why we have gathered here tonight? The question remains a question: Is there no one here–or anywhere–to plead the case of the Almighty King of the universe?

(Mendel has spoken with nostalgia. Melancholy sets in)

Avremel (minstrel 2): Poor, poor King of Kings.

Yankel (minstrel 3): Feel sorry for Him? Already?

Berish: We’re heading in the wrong direction! We’re her not to pity Him but to judge Him!

Avremel: Poor King who needs His servant’s pity.

Berish: He needs it? He won’t get it! Not from me! He had no pity for me, why should I have pity for Him?

Mendel: I-who? Berish the innkeeper or Berish the prosecutor?

Berish: Berish is Berish. And I’m fed up with you! I’m an honest man, I’ve never stolen, I’ve never cheated! I’ve never humiliated anyone. I have done only good, not He. He has done me nothing but harm. And now, now you want me to feel sorry for Him? Where was He when… (catches himself and tries to sound calm) I forgot that we are playing–maybe He, too, is playing.

For a college essay about faith I quoted from this book and then cited a Wiesel quote that really resonated with me at the time.

You can be a Jew with God. You can be a Jew against God. But you can’t be a Jew without God.

Wiesel was my favorite author at a time that his particular blend of language and faith, but a faith that was meant to be explored and questioned and battered and hated, in a god that deserved anger and needed defense, meant everything to me.

Now my relationship to is a little more complicated; it feels like a part of a past I’m still figuring out how to embrace. But even if the messages are less immediately revelatory to me, the language, and what I learned about its power, is something I’ll forever be grateful for.

oh-one oh-two

Things I thought about today: my father, my grandmother, sinners, Daredevil, and the secular word for evil. That was all one chain of thought. 

Other things that came up: the TV show You, primarily about cliches of struggling writers in New York (nothing has ever made me want to identify as a struggling writer in New York less than watching You), vegan restaurants in Brooklyn, the cost of apple butter, and aging.

I told my father, “You might live another 40 years.” He did not seem enthused. He told me the same thing that he said back when he must have been my age now, that he did not want to live without his mind. 

I remembered that his father died in his sixties, and I remembered the Midrash that Rashi quotes, that when Yitzchak approached the age at which his mother died, he could no longer ignore his mortality. “Behold now, I have grown old,” he said. He was 123.

After we hung up, I wrote in my journal: if I had more money, I would highlight my hair. 

The United States of true crime

In each episode of Small Town Murder, a true crime podcast, the hosts tell the story of a murder that happened in a small town somewhere in America (mostly).

But rather than just tell the story of the murder, the hosts tell the story of the town itself; its people, its history, its legend, and why to the people that live there, it’s home.

At 63 episodes in, the hosts have hit 49 of 50 states, telling the stories of Appalachian coal towns, seaside villages along the Pacific, wealthy suburbs, mountain resorts, and historic towns in the deep South. The only state that’s missing is Mississippi.

Here’s a map of the murders:

Crime is often deeply rooted in place, both its genesis and its aftermath. Small Town Murder is the opposite of something like Serial, which sees in a single crime a microcosm of national, cultural forces. Here, the crime is connected to the physical place, to the specificity of the mountain, or beach or town square. For the locals, the crime looms large in a way it never could for the rest of us.

I initially intended to map several true crime podcasts, and I found that there are at least 26 states that were the setting for a serial true crime podcast, or an anthology podcast specific to that state. The full list is here.

That turn out to be a challenge that would have required some more serious NLP skills, so this is the first step.

Another Thing

I want to start a magazine called Davar Acher. Because it has the most awesome triple meaning ever.

Literally: another thing
The Hebrew meaning of this is another thing, or alternatively, something else.

Colloquially: a pig, or other abominable things
The Talmud calls a pig a ‘davar acher’ during a discussion on using clean language. Here’s a piece of it, slightly edited for clarity:

Two disciples sat before Rav. One said, “This discussion has made us [as tired] as an exhausted swine”, while the other said, “This discussion has made us [as tired] as an exhausted kid,” and Rav would not speak to the former.

My dad uses “davar acher” to refer to a certain member of the human species who did pretty abominable things like abuse and cheat on his wife, who is very dear to our family.

Academically: a second opinion
The most famous commentator on the Torah is Rashi, and his work is commonly taught to young children. Rashi usually has a question on the text – about word usage, chronology, grammatical anomalies etc. – and then attempts to give the simplest possible answer. If one explanation doesn’t suffice he’ll write the first, then say “davar acher” before introducing the second. Rashi scholars point out that often each of Rashi’s explanations fill in a blank that the other doesn’t, so that they are neither contradictory nor complementary. It’s another way of looking at it.
This teaches the child/student that there can be more than one right answer, and that often, an answer may not be entirely satisfactory.

It’s so much packed into two words: a delight in difference and dialogue, but also in discrimination. There’s the implication of something more, without diminishing the current thing. It’s a combination of canon and colloquial contribution, a reminder of how much our interpretation of words retroactively define them.

Unfortunately, like my name, few members outside the tribe can pronounce it.


What prayer is

Everybody prays. Prayer is what you do when you recognize your own powerlessness but refuse to believe it. It’s when you want something so badly that you think the strength of your desire is – or should be – enough to make it happen. When someone is sick, when you don’t want to die, when you’re waiting for an answer about a job or a school, when you’ve hurt someone you love and you’d give anything for them to forgive you.

The first time I got kicked out of class I was in 1st grade. I laughed because we’d gotten the song for the prayer confused. My teacher scolded me and told me to look inside the prayerbook. I complied by leaning over all the way so that my nose touched the page. “Out!” she yelled so loud that I knew my sister, who was in the room next door, heard. I was mortified.

When I was nine I started saying the evening prayer, which only men are obligated to do. That was probably the peak of my religiosity.

Sometimes, when I paid attention to the words I would have brief moments of appreciation for the God that spoke and the world was created, for the way the angels praised him in thirty different synonymous ways, for the miracles he preformed for us and the forgiveness he was always ready to bestow upon us.

Mostly through, through years and years of saying the same prayers, it was never a meaningful experience. Oh, the daydreams. I would open up my prayer book, get to the second paragraph, which begins “And it was after these matters and God called to Avraham”. That was my cue. Off my mind would go to the fantasy of the week or month.

A part of me wished I had better self control, but I wasn’t a fighter. When God called to Avraham and I was called to my daydreams I didn’t fight it. I knew all the words by heart so it was easy to mumble through the pages, sing at the singing parts, stand at the standing parts, put my hand over my eyes at Shema and bow during Modim. I was always surprised when we got to the end. I had no memory of saying everything in between.

That kind of prayer is different. It’s organized, ritualized, systemized and most of it is praise for a supernal being, not a heartfelt cry for help, or at least for comfort.

Not everybody prays like that. There’s a song lyric that says, “I know I’m not forgiven, but I need a place to sleep,” and later “I know I’m not forgiven but I hope that I’ll be given some peace.”

That’s another prayer. I know I don’t deserve it, I’ve done nothing to earn it, I can make no case that I should have it, but I need it. Not in a hungry way, in I just need a moment of respite way, a moment of comfort, of safety. I need to relinquish control to someone, something, anything.

Who do people pray to? In this definition of prayer that is. Fate, the universe, a dead relative, Jesus, Allah, a saint, a star, or to themselves.

Maybe we need another word so that people don’t confuse this prayer with ceremonial prayers.