1st Asian-American cantor tackles rabbinate

When she was a teenager at Camp Swig, Angela Warnick Buchdahl and her sister were the only Asian-American Jews at the Reform movement's camp in Saratoga.

Today, the 27-year-old Buchdahl is the only Asian-American cantor in the United States, according to Paul Steinberg, dean of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion's School of Sacred Music in New York.

In May, she completed her cantorial studies there. Now studying to be a rabbi, she serves as an intern at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y., where the senior rabbi, Richard Jacobs, also worked at Swig.

Those who know Buchdahl say the former Swig head song leader exudes spirit.

"She is wonderful! Beyond the ordinary! I wish I could clone her!" Steinberg said.

Discussing her childhood during a recent visit to her parents in Tacoma, Wash., Buchdahl said that coming from an interfaith, interracial marriage made her spiritual journey more complex than for most.

"I was always aware of God. I was always seeking religious life everywhere," she said.

Born in Korea to a Jewish American father and a Buddhist Korean mother, Buchdahl moved with her family to America at the age of 5. She was brought up in a Jewish home in a community that she recalls as being "small but strong."

While growing up in Tacoma, Buchdahl recalls being the only non-white Jew at Temple Beth El, but her race was never questioned and nor was her Jewishness.

Her father's family had belonged "for 100 years" and her presence there was accepted. Still, Buchdahl's Jewish identity was not always solid.

"It was something I always had to work at," she said. "My father's family were cultural Jews, not necessarily religious. My grandmother's social center was the synagogue. But I had to bring many of the Jewish traditions into my own life. I instigated lighting candles, saying Sh'ma.

"Sometimes this made me feel like it wasn't really real — my Judaism — because I had to seek it out and bring it home."

A 1989 summer trip to Israel on a Bronfman Youth Fellowship was her "first transformative Jewish experience."

It was in Israel that Buchdahl realized her Jewishness was something she could not escape from.

"The Tacoma community never questioned me. At Bronfman there were Jews who didn't think I was a Jew. And in Israel, children would yell at me in the street; they would come up to me and say, 'Do you know what that Jewish star around your neck means?'"

While in Israel, in the Bronfman program she was jealous of her Orthodox roommate because "her Jewishness came seeping out of every pore. It made me feel like maybe I wasn't authentic enough.

"I used to think that I could blend in if I wanted to, I could just be Korean-American and forget about my Jewishness. It was then that I realized that I couldn't just stop being a Jew."

Back in Tacoma, Buchdahl became very involved in BBYO. She particularly liked to lead songs.

When she entered Yale in 1990, Buchdahl decided to become a religious studies major — "because I wanted some free therapy," she said with a smile.

"I learned through my studies that even though my mother did not preach or practice Buddhism, learning about Buddhism helped me understand her. She was Buddhist in the ways she thought and acted."

At the same time, Buchdahl was grateful for her one-religion household, which gave her a strong sense of moral and personal identity. At the age of 21, she went through what she calls a "reaffirmation ceremony," which involved immersion in a mikvah.

She calls it more of a reaffirmation than a conversion, as she had already accepted her Jewishness as an identity, but she still struggled with its validity.

"The reaffirmation ceremony was about me wanting to recognize that half my family was not Jewish, but that I was," she said.

Technically, according to all but the Reform movement, her non-Jewish mother made her a non-Jew. At the same time her Korean background made her a visible contradiction.

"You can be a feminist and a Jew, a homosexual and a Jew; but none of those things are necessarily visible. It just so happens that my contradiction, being an Asian-American and a Jew, is noticeable," she said.

After graduating from Yale in 1994, Buchdahl enrolled in rabbinic studies at HUC-JIR but did not finish. She spent the first school year, 1995-96, in Israel.

"Living in the cycle of the Jewish year," she said, helped her affirm her sense of tradition and custom. "I was in Israel the year [Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated, the year two bus bombings were within two blocks of my apartment.

"I remember the country standing in silence when the news came of Rabin's death and tears streaming down my face. I never thought I would be the kind of Jew who would go to Israel when she was at war, but there I was in a time of crisis and I realized that I was not the kind of Jew who would leave Israel when she was at war."

While in rabbinic school, Buchdahl had another revelation. She was still missing something that was an integral part of her spirituality: music. She left rabbinic school to become a cantor.

She is now married, back in rabbinic school at HUC-JIR in New York and living in suburban Harrison.

"I still can't decide whether I want to be a rabbi or a cantor," she said.

She holds the key to many possibilities. Her energy and her spirit seem to give her the strength to push herself as well as conventional limits.

"To a certain extent I feel I've been a pioneer," she said. "I like pushing the boundaries a little bit if I can help in some way to make it easier [for others]. But I feel if I just am who I am, that's always been the best."