To many people, Jews and South Koreans couldn't be more dissimilar. They don't seem to share such things as language, food, religion, history or geography.
Still, that's not the way E. Harris Baum sees it.
"They are a people that are very warm and devoted to principles that we believe in as Jewish people: ethics, moral integrity and dedication," said the 76-year-old, who is flanked in his law office 13 floors above Market Street by a full-sized Korean flag.
Since 2006, Baum has served as Honorary Consul General for the Republic of Korea, and he said that, for all their differences, the two peoples share a commitment to family, education and helping one another.
He noted similarities between "the Jewish ethic and the Korean ethic; they're one and the same." That is, he added, "as a friend you become part of the family."
In the 1990s, while studying karate, Baum became interested in the Korean philosophy, and began taking language courses. He recalled that once, while traveling, he struck up a conversation with a Korean fellow who "was amazed at the fact that a little American Jewish kid can speak a little Korean."
Modest about his language skills, Baum says that he speaks "just enough to move around a little" and "keep out of trouble."
The attorney and his traveling partner became friends, and Baum was later asked to represent the man's business in Korea. At the time, he already represented a U.S. steel company there and had visited the country twice. Through his dealings with this businessman, he came to know many in the Delaware Valley's Korean community; he eventually was asked to take a stab at the unpaid position of honorary consul general, which included submitting a résumé to the government in Seoul, as well as undergoing interviews with the FBI and State Department.
Though he's no longer a practicing litigator, he still works for the law firm of Zarwin Baum DeVito Kaplan Schaer Toddy PC, which he helped found in 1960. As for his voluntary diplomatic duties, he serves primarily as a liaison between the nation's consulate in New York and its embassy in Washington, D.C.
Some of that work involves helping to jump-start leadership in the Korean-American community — everything from assisting in the formation of leaders to making sure that the many Korean-Americans throughout the region are accurately represented in the upcoming census.
Maintaining close contact with the New York consulate, he also assists with the needs of recent immigrants to the area, including a recent push to install electronic signs in Philadelphia International Airport with messages in Korean, among other languages. He added that a large part of his work involves developing Korean business interests in America and vice versa.
For his service, Baum was recently honored by the Philip Jaisohn Memorial Foundation — named for a prominent Korean immigrant who settled in Philadelphia — which lauds the enhancement of life in the Korean-American community.
He noted that another element of his work as honorary consul, one with international implications, entails helping local families with relatives in North Korea.
The situation in North Korea means " 'tsuris' — 'trouble' in Yiddish," said Baum.
He cited concerns over who will succeed Kim Jong Il as the country's leader, and fears that the military may then have even more strength than it does now.
He also likened North Korea to Iran, and said that the only thing the two countries will understand is "constricting some of the economics of that part of the world in order to make sure that they come around and start to realize the meaningfulness of peace among our nations."