During Elena Kagan’s United States Supreme Court confirmation hearings of 2010, at a particularly contentious moment, South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham directed the discussion to the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner.
Graham then asked the candidate where she was on Christmas Day. Justice Kagan famously answered, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Her comment provoked laughter and reduced the level of tension in the room. Recognizing that some in the room might be unfamiliar with the custom, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York then explained how Jews had a special affinity with eating out at Chinese restaurants on Christmas because they were the only restaurants open in New York City.
The origin of this venerated Jewish tradition of eating out at Chinese restaurants dates to the end of the 19th century on the Lower East Side. Jews found such restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity. The first mention of this phenomenon was in 1899 when the American Hebrew weekly journal criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out in particular Jews who flock to Chinese restaurants. In 1903, the Yiddish-language newspaper the Forward coined the Yiddish word oysessen — eating out — to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.
By 1910, approximately one million Jews had settled here, constituting more than one quarter of the city’s population. Soon, immigrants were exposed to non-Jewish ethnic foods and tastes. In the neighborhoods in which Jews first settled, Chinese restaurants were plentiful. A 1936 Lower East Side publication, East Side Chamber News, reported that at least 18 Chinese “tea gardens” and chop suey eateries had recently opened in the heavily populated Jewish area. All were within a short walking distance of Ratner’s, the famous Jewish dairy restaurant in Manhattan. Some of these Jews, tailoring their kosher dietary practices, remained strict in home observance but became flexible with the foods they ate outside the home. Many children of immigrants rejected dietary restrictions, which they believed to be impractical and anachronistic. By the end of the 20th century, after only 100 years, immigrant Jews were more familiar with sushi than with gefilte fish, a transition from the more traditional diet of their forebears that Chinese restaurants facilitated.
Moreover, the Chinese accepted Jews and other immigrant and ethnic groups as customers without precondition. There was no inherent anti-Semitism to overcome when entering the restaurant because Chinese owners and waiters had no history of prejudice toward Jews. Not having yet mastered the English language, immigrant Chinese restaurateurs, as Philip Roth comments in “Portnoy’s Complaint,” thought that the Jew’s Yiddish-inflected English was the King’s English. Furthermore, Jews chose Chinese restaurants over other ethnic cuisines, such as Italian, because Christian symbols were absent in these venues. The Chinese restaurant was, as sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry Gene Levine point out in an essay “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern,” a “safe treyf” environment in which to enjoy a satisfying and inexpensive meal made with ingredients that were desirable and familiar to Eastern Europeans, including onions, garlic and vegetables.
Comfort and anonymity can also be found in the foods served, which, while not being kosher per se, are disguised through a process of cutting, chopping and mincing. Pork, shrimp, lobster and other so-called dietary abominations are no longer viewed in their more natural states. Pork, for example, wrapped and hidden inside a wonton looks remarkably like Jewish kreplach (dumpling). Also, the absence of milk in Chinese cuisine shields Jewish patrons from observing meat served with milk, a violation of kosher laws. In general, Chinese food eased the transition from kosher to acceptable non-kosher eating.
The younger generation enjoyed asserting its independence from family tradition. For children of immigrants, eating Chinese foods not only broke with kosher dietary restrictions but also added a level of refinement and worldliness. It was important for them to demonstrate a cosmopolitan spirit as a sign of successful adaptation to American culture.
The war between chop suey and gefilte fish did not go unnoticed in the Jewish press. The daily Yiddish newspaper Der Tog ran an article in 1928 in which the reporter commented on this culinary tug-of-war between the eating habits of the old world and the new world. “Down with Chop Suey! Long Live Gefilte Fish!” was the battle cry sounded and backlash waged by those defending traditional cultural habits.
“Eating Chinese” became so popular that Jews regularly patronized Chinese restaurants. The weekends were popular occasions. Neil Postman, who grew up in Brooklyn in a heavily populated Jewish area during the 1930s and 1940s, remembers that his family routinely ate at the local Chinese eatery on Friday nights. For 30 cents, with a dime tip, they’d get: “egg drop soup, an egg roll and chow mein. And then a little bowl of ice cream with a fortune cookie.” By the beginning of the 21st century, the custom of eating Chinese food had spread across the country and was considered to be a venerated Jewish tradition, especially dim sum dining for Sunday brunch.
And what about eating Chinese food on Christmas? It dates at least as early as 1935 when The New York Times reported a certain restaurant owner named Eng Shee Chuck who brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark. Over the years, Jewish families and friends gather on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Chinese restaurants across the United States to socialize and to banter, to reinforce social and familiar bonds, and to engage in a favorite activity for Jews during the Christmas holiday. The Chinese restaurant has become a place where Jewish identity is made, remade and announced.
Adapted from “A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish” by Joshua Eli Plaut, foreword by Jonathan D. Sarna, published last month by Rutgers University Press. www.akosherchristmas.org
Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut is executive director of American Friends of Rabin Medical. He is an historian, photo-ethnographer and cultural anthropologist, and is also the author of “Greek Jewry in the Twentieth Century, 1913-1983: Patterns of Jewish Communal Survival in the Greek Provinces before and after the Holocaust.”