Brooklyn, NY – A Harvard University senior named as a Rhodes Scholar last week said it was her upbringing on the outskirts of Borough Park that influenced her decision to pursue a career as a professor of Jewish history.
The daughter of Korean immigrants, 21 year old Nancy Ko grew up fascinated by the two very diverse Jewish communities she saw near her Bensonhurst home.
“There were the more secularized post-Soviet Russian Jews in Bensonhurst as well as the extremely religious and traditional Jews in nearby Borough Park, “ Ko told VIN News.
Ko often worked behind the register at her parents’ bodega which she recalls as perpetually noisy and full of heated discussion. Ironically, she found herself experiencing a vibe that mirrored the goings-on at the bodega during a field trip to a nearby beis medrash for a high school Jewish history class.
“It was very loud and everyone was debating each other and it all made sense to me,” explained Ko. “That was one of the main things that drew me to Jewish tradition: the value of debate.”
Ko also enjoyed reading novels on how Jews fared when they first came to America, seeing parallels to her own upbringing.
“A lot of it resonated with me,” said Ko. “There were so many similarities between our immigrant experiences.”
A Harvard summer trip to Israel during the Gaza war cemented Ko’s interest in Jewish history as she found herself exploring the complicated conflicts between Jewish and Israeli identities in modern times. By delving further into the past, Ko hopes to be able to build bridges to the present, alleviating the existing divides in Israeli society.
Ko attributes some of her fascination with history to the sudden death of her father six years ago.
“My parents would say save everything; save all of your thoughts, all of the things that matter to you,” said Ko. “But on that night when my father died I couldn’t save him. I began to realize exactly how important it is to preserve the past. Historical amnesia has its consequences.”
Fluent in six languages including Hebrew and Arabic, Ko plans on doing her senior thesis on the political life of Iranian Jews during the 1905 Persian constitutional revolution.
A senior editor of the Harvard Undergraduate History Review, she plans to complete a masters in philosophy in Middle Eastern studies while at Oxford, ultimately becoming a professor of Jewish history with a specialty in Mizrachi Jewish history.
An accomplished knitter, Ko has made sweaters that she donated to Syrian refugees. Another knitting project was a hat that she gave her Jewish professor of Armenian studies bearing the words “Na Na Nach Nachman.”
“It was a little tight, but he wore it anyway,” said Ko.
Finding out that she had been elected a Rhodes Scholar was an emotional moment for Ko and she credits her parents’ hard work with her academic success.
“My mother has worked seven days a week, 13 hours a day for 20, going on 30 years for my sister and me and I was struck by the depth and the gravity and the sacrifice of that,” said Ko. “As far as I am concerned, she is the Rhodes Scholar. I am so grateful to her and my father.”