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Why Do Jewish People Eat Chinese Food on Christmas?

Why Do Jewish People Eat Chinese Food on Christmas?


Sure, Chinese food places are some of only restaurants open, but there may be more to the tradition than meets the eye

Both Chinese and Jewish cultures have delicious traditions of deep-fried, crispy food (go latkes and fried wontons!)

There are few holiday traditions that unite a group of people more than Jewish families eating Chinese food and going to the movies on Christmas. But there may be more to this tongue-in-cheek display of Yiddish Yuletide than meets the eye. According to an article in The Atlantic, Jewish and Chinese groups are “linked by otherness.” In other words, both Chinese and Jewish groups remember what it was like to be a (somewhat unwanted) immigrant in America.

According to Ed Schoenfeld, owner of Red Farm, a well-known Chinese restaurant in New York, Jewish people who keep kosher cannot mix dairy with meat, so they found safe passage in eating Chinese food. Chinese restaurants rarely include dairy products in their food and often offer extensive vegetarian options. However, Chinese food products do contain plenty of pork and shellfish, so your local Panda Express isn’t entirely safe.

Jennifer 8 Lee, producer of The Search for General Tso even went as far as to suggest, to The Atlantic that Chinese food was inspired by the Jews.

“I would argue that Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of American Jews,” she said. “That, in fact, they identify with it more than they do gefilte fish or all kinds of the Eastern Europe dishes of yore.”


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Why Do Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas? How a Strange American Tradition Started

On Christmas in America, Jews eat Chinese food. So the story goes.

According to the food blog First We Feast, the New York Chinese food restaurant Shun Lee West books 1,300 reservations every Christmas Day, as of 2014. The Atlantic reports that the tradition was well in place by 1910.

The assumption many people might make is that, as Senator Chuck Schumer said during Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing, “no other restaurants are open” on Christmas. By many accounts, it’s a little more complicated than that.

Diners at a dim sum restaurant Bobby Yip/Reuters

For one thing, the custom also may have to do with Jewish dietary law.

There is the idea of “safe treyf,” that American Chinese food comes closer to meeting Jewish dietary restrictions. In order for food to be kosher, among other rules, it can’t mix dairy and meat. While American Chinese food often contains pork, shellfish, and other nonkosher meats, it doesn’t often combine those meats with dairy. And, as Tablet writes, whatever unkosher meat it does contain is harder to see because it is usually finely chopped.

An academic article published in the journal Ethnography entitled “Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food” drives that argument home.

“Proximity” and “otherness” also likely played a role. The traditionally Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side was flush up against New York’s Chinatown. And, at least in the early 20th century, both Jewish and Chinese immigrants were seen as outside the norm of whiteness.

The Ethnography article also makes the argument that, in addition to the “safe treyf” idea, American Jews in the early 20th century may have seen Chinese food as “cosmopolitan” and sophisticated. And as one generation of American Jews became attached to eating Chinese food on Christmas, it became part of American Jewish identity. Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas because Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas.

The strange tradition has become such a meme that, when asked during her 2010 confirmation hearing about her whereabouts during the Christmas Day bombing in 2009, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

It’s also why you can find recipes for dishes like pastrami egg rolls online.

As food writer Michael Twitty puts it, “How do you affirm your Americanness when the ‘American’ thing to do is celebrate Christmas? You create your own ‘Christmas.’”

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Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas? How the tradition has evolved over 100 years.

It's Christmas 2015, and the streets of lower Manhattan are packed. Dredging through the slush on Doyers Street, I can barely push by a family lined up outside Chinatown's Nom Wah Tea Parlor to reach an understated noodle shop to see if they have open seats in the basement. They don't.

It's my first and only Christmas ever spent in New York City, and my plans to meet up with a Jewish friend for what we thought would be a casual feast of peking duck and wonton soup are completely thwarted by the thousands of like-minded Chinese-food-on-Christmas observers.

If you didn't know any better, you'd think it was the Lunar New Year or another special day for Chinese people. But no, it is Christmas, and in New York City, or Jew York City (as it's known to the in-crowd), it is Chinese Food Day, and waits across town are over an hour for mediocre General Tso's. So how did this happen?

The tradition of Jewish people eating Chinese food on Christmas, like so many trends, started in New York, and even eventually spread across the East Coast and West Coast — though it still remains an American pastime. European, South American and Australian Jews aren't necessarily lining up for dumplings and egg rolls come the anniversary of Jesus' birth.

Blame New Yorkers for your X-mas Day egg drop soup

"Most Jews came first to the Lower East Side in Manhattan, which is right below Chinatown," Ken Albala, professor of history and chair of Food Studies at University of the Pacific's San Francisco campus, explained in an email. "As kosher regulations loosened for many immigrants, they were happy to try pork, shrimp and other un-kosher dishes in proximity."

These Jews, along with immigrants from all over the world, including China, arrived in the latter part of the 19th century, explained Albala, though immigration came to a halt in 1924 with the Immigration Act, which put a quota on visas and essentially barred immigrants from Asia.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, for those of different nationalities, mingling and exchanging cultures was natural. Albala's father (the son of Sephardic Jewish immigrants) worked in New York City's garment industry and designed patterns for skirts, employing Puerto Rican workers to cut the cloth, Chinese contractors to sew the garments and Italian (Mafia controlled) trucks to do all the shipping, Albala said. "These communities lived and worked in close proximity in most cities on the East Coast," Albala explained.

And the intermingling of these communities, especially that among Jewish people and Chinese people, with both coming from cultures "to which food and cultural cuisine holds great importance," Albala said, led to a Jewish love for lo mein.

"American Jews have had a well-documented love for Chinese food since at least the 1920s," Ted Merwin, author of Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli and Dickinson College associate professor, explained in an email. "A Yiddish daily newspaper in New York reported on the war between chop suey and gefilte fish, as the former began to gain ascendancy over the latter. But it was in the postwar years that suburban Jews truly began to forsake the deli for the Chinese restaurant for their Sunday night family gatherings."

Dim sum and then some

The similarities between Chinese and Jewish cuisine also helped Jewish people adopt Chinese food as part of their regular diet. "The reasons for this are manifold: Jewish and Chinese food are both relatively inexpensive, marked by sweet and sour flavors, and avoid dairy and meat combinations," Merwin explained. "Chinese restaurants — among the only kind of eatery that was open on Christmas Eve, when Jews needed something to do — seemed exotic and non-threatening to a generation of secularizing Jews who wanted to feel sophisticated and cosmopolitan."

And as Jews spread out to Brooklyn, Queens and other boroughs and eventually suburbs as well, so did Chinese restaurants. "So it was always a matter of proximity," Albala explained. "And then, what's the only restaurant open on Christmas?" There was always a Chinese restaurant ready to dole out General Tso's on a Christian holiday. A tradition was born.

Will the tradition last?

As America (or parts of America) welcome an influx of international and fusion cuisines, the ritual is evolving. "The tradition [of eating Chinese food on Christmas] has been changing in the 21st century," Merwin said. "Japanese, Thai, Korean, Indian, Pakistani and other kinds of Asian restaurants have proliferated. Chinese restaurants offer 'fusion cuisine,' including sushi." So a typical Jewish Christmas meal can come from a variety of non-Christian restaurants, some of which serve a mélange of Asian cuisines.

Intermarriage and the adoption of various religious and cultural traditions may also be a reason for the tasty tradition to fade out. "A growing number of American Jews, now married to Christians, began celebrating Christmas with their extended family, so the Christmas Eve ritual of going out for 'Chinese and a movie' has plummeted in popularity," Merwin said. Though, doesn't Chinese takeout pair oh so well with that very last December Netflix binge of holiday movies?

For many American Jews, as evidenced by the chaos in Chinatown every Christmas, the tradition persists, in some form or another.

"It's been passed down in my family from generation to generation it's really the only restaurant open, so it just became a tradition for us," 27-year-old Michael Freedman of Concord, Massachusetts, said via email. "I don't think we even particularly love Chinese food, it's just a once a year chance to get together with extended family and order in."

The tradition is also a way for some to connect with their communities. "Like many New York Jews, I grew up eating Chinese food for Christmas," writer Xan West said. "I continue to do it now, even though I am estranged from my blood family, because it helps me feel connected to my Jewishness. My queer chosen family continues this tradition, and it's one of the things I look forward to most in December." West is currently working on a novel, in which a Jewish queer chosen family observes this tradition, "because it is so dear to my heart," West said.

For Chicago native Nick Bruscato, the Chinese food on Christmas tradition just made sense to him growing up. "My family does have a tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, partially to fulfill the stereotype, but also on cold, busy, snowy nights in Chicago when most places are closed, it's easier to order in than go out," he wrote in an email. After a trip to China, however, Bruscato's family "developed a distaste for American Chinese food," finding their local options "unauthentic and unappetizing," but discovered three Thai restaurants within blocks of their Chicago home. Now, Bruscato, a Peace Corps volunteer based in the Philippines, is all about Thai food for Christmas.

"Thai food is amazing! I think many Jews should switch to Thai, what Chinese foods are they clinging to? General Tso's Chicken? which isn't really Chinese," he said. Bruscato, who keeps kosher, has also eaten other cuisines on Christmas. "I have also done Indian food on Christmas Eve," he said. "The place was packed with Hindus and Muslims trying to find a place to eat at that was open."

For non-Christians, the dining out on Christmas may just be another simple way to break down barriers.

So go ahead, be a mensch and dig into some dumplings this Christmas. It's tradition!


Why Do Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas? How a Strange American Tradition Started

On Christmas in America, Jews eat Chinese food. So the story goes.

According to the food blog First We Feast, the New York Chinese food restaurant Shun Lee West books 1,300 reservations every Christmas Day, as of 2014. The Atlantic reports that the tradition was well in place by 1910.

The assumption many people might make is that, as Senator Chuck Schumer said during Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan's confirmation hearing, "no other restaurants are open" on Christmas. By many accounts, it's a little more complicated than that.

For one thing, the custom also may have to do with Jewish dietary law.

There is the idea of "safe treyf," that American Chinese food comes closer to meeting Jewish dietary restrictions. In order for food to be kosher, among other rules, it can't mix dairy and meat. While American Chinese food often contains pork, shellfish, and other nonkosher meats, it doesn't often combine those meats with dairy. And, as Tablet writes, whatever unkosher meat it does contain is harder to see because it is usually finely chopped.

An academic article published in the journal Ethnography entitled "Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food" drives that argument home.

"Proximity" and "otherness" also likely played a role. The traditionally Jewish neighborhood of the Lower East Side was flush up against New York's Chinatown. And, at least in the early 20th century, both Jewish and Chinese immigrants were seen as outside the norm of whiteness.

The Ethnography article also makes the argument that, in addition to the "safe treyf" idea, American Jews in the early 20th century may have seen Chinese food as "cosmopolitan" and sophisticated. And as one generation of American Jews became attached to eating Chinese food on Christmas, it became part of American Jewish identity. Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas because Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas.

The strange tradition has become such a meme that, when asked during her 2010 confirmation hearing about her whereabouts during the Christmas Day bombing in 2009, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said "Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant."

It's also why you can find recipes for dishes like pastrami egg rolls online.

As food writer Michael Twitty puts it, "How do you affirm your Americanness when the 'American' thing to do is celebrate Christmas? You create your own 'Christmas.'"


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So although it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food “reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,” she explained.

Estimates of the surging Jewish population of New York City run from 400,000 in 1899 to about 1 million by 1910 (or roughly a quarter of the city’s population). And, as some Jews began to assimilate into American life, they not only found acceptance at Chinese restaurants, but also easy passage into the world beyond Kosher food.

“Chinese restaurants were the easiest place to trick yourself into thinking you were eating Kosher food,” Ed Schoenfeld, the owner of RedFarm, one of the most laureled Chinese restaurants in New York, said. Indeed, it was something of a perfect match. Jewish law famously prohibits the mixing of milk and meat just as Chinese food traditionally excludes dairy from its dishes. Lee added:

If you look at the two other main ethnic cuisines in America, which are Italian and Mexican, both of those combine milk and meat to a significant extent. Chinese food allowed Jews to eat foreign cuisines in a safe way.

And so, for Jews, the chop-suey palaces and dumpling parlors of the Lower East Side and Chinatown gave the illusion of religious accordance, even if there was still treif galore in the form of pork and shellfish. Nevertheless, it’s more than a curiosity that a narrow culinary phenomenon that started more than a century ago managed to grow into a national ritual that is both specifically American and characteristically Jewish.

“Clearly this whole thing with Chinese food and Jewish people has evolved,” Schoenfeld said. “There’s no question. Christmas was always a good day for Chinese restaurants, but in recent years, it’s become the ultimate day of business.”

But there’s more to it than that. Ask a food purist about American Chinese food and you’ll get a pu-pu platter of hostile rhetoric about its inauthenticity. Driving the point home, earlier this week, CBS reported on two Americans who opened a restaurant in Shanghai that features American-style Chinese dishes such as orange chicken, pork egg rolls, and, yes, the beloved General Tso’s, all of which don’t exist in traditional Chinese cuisine. The restaurant gets it name from another singular upshot of Chinese-American fusion: Fortune Cookie.

Schoenfeld, whose restaurant features an egg roll made with pastrami from Katz’s Deli, shrugs off the idea that Americanized Chinese food is somehow an affront to cultural virtue. “Adaptation has been a signature part of the Chinese food experience,” he said. “If you went to Italy, you’d see a Chinese restaurant trying to make an Italian customer happy.”

That particular mutability has a meaningful link to the Jewish experience, the rituals of which were largely forged in exile. During the First and Second Temple eras, Jewish practice centered around temple life in Jerusalem. Featuring a monarchy and a high priesthood, it bears little resemblance to Jewish life today, with its rabbis and synagogues.

So could it be that Chinese food is a manifestation of Jewish life in America? Lee seems to think so. “I would argue that Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of American Jews. That, in fact, they identify with it more than they do gefilte fish or all kinds of the Eastern Europe dishes of yore.”

Over the centuries, different religious customs have sprung up and new spiritual rituals have taken root, many of which draw on the past. Jewish Christmas, in many ways, could very much be seen as a modern affirmation of faith. After all, there are few days that remind American Jews of their Jewishness more than Christmas in the United States.


The Reason Jews Eat Chinese Food On Christmas Is Rooted In Solidarity

Along with carving the ham and eating gingerbread cookies to our hearts’ content, there’s another big food tradition that comes on Christmas day.

For over a century, Jewish families in the U.S. have been paying a visit to their favorite Chinese restaurant for a special annual meal.

Today, the occasion has become such a tradition that Chinese restaurants fill up quickly and see business boom for the day. New York City’s Shun Lee, for example, has received around 1,300 reservations for the day in the past.

But while people now excitedly anticipate the popular custom, its roots are bittersweet. Though there are several theories as to how this practice began, some experts agree that it’s rooted in finding unity amid adversity.

Jennifer 8. Lee, producer of “ The Search for General Tso ,” explained to The Atlantic that being the two largest immigrant groups at the turn of the century that weren’t Christian, Chinese and Jewish people both understood “what it’s like to be outsiders.”

It was at Chinese restaurants that Jewish immigrants felt accepted, she said.

“Jewish people could go into Chinese restaurants and feel safe,” Lee explained to First We Feast. “And during the 1920s, Chinese food was exotic and cosmopolitan, so the way to impress a girl was to go grab some chop suey.”

Michael Twitty, Food writer and culinary historian, told the outlet that the custom was also a way for the two groups to create their own uniquely American experience.

“How do you affirm your Americanness when the ‘American’ thing to do is celebrate Christmas?” he said. “You create your own ‘Christmas.’”

Another factor that’s been cited as the root of the tradition is how close in proximity the immigrant groups settled.

Ken Albala, history professor and chair of Food Studies at University of the Pacific’s San Francisco campus, explained that most Jews came to the U.S. in the late 1800’s by way of Manhattan’s Lower East Side ― an area just under Chinatown.

Living and working in close proximity allowed for interaction between the two cultures “to which food and cultural cuisine holds great importance,” he told Mic, later adding that as Jews spread into different neighborhoods, Chinese food did too.

Chinese and Jews find some common ground when it comes to the actual food as well.

Jewish law prohibits the mixing of milk and meat in cooking and Chinese cuisine doesn’t feature dairy at all. However, other popular ethnic cuisines like Italian and Mexican food do combine the ingredients quite a bit, limiting the types of dishes Jewish people can experience, Lee explained to the Atlantic.

“Chinese food allowed Jews to eat foreign cuisines in a safe way,” she said.

As for the pork and shellfish in Chinese food ― well, some immigrants were willing to bend the rules of tradition just a bit, Albala said.

“As kosher regulations loosened for many immigrants, they were happy to try pork, shrimp and other un-kosher dishes in proximity.”

While the way Christmas is observed has evolved over time, the Chinese meal has stayed as an essential tradition one that’s part of the Jewish experience in the United States.

“I’ve had traditional Christmas dinners in the midst of warm Christian families, and I’ve had numerous Chinese meals on Christmas day,” Rob Eshman, Editor-in-Chief of Jewish Journal told First We Feast. “But for me, Chinese is the real taste of Christmas.”


What’s up with Jews and Chinese food on Christmas?

“…on this night, we dip twice.” That’s the line from the Passover Haggadah.

Except, not on the night before Christmas.

If you are Jewish, you are most likely dipping far more than twice. You are probably dipping four or five times.

Fried noodles in the duck sauce.

This evening, I will be participating in the ancient Jewish custom of eating Chinese food at a restaurant with beloved congregants. No doubt, we will run into other members of the tribe there. We could probably act out Fiddler On The Roof from memory.

But, why? Why did eating Chinese food on Christmas (and in many places, going to the movies as well) become a Jewish “thing?”

There are any number of theories as to how this minhag (custom) developed. Let me sum up two for you — and throw in a third.

The urban geography argument: If you consider the history of Jewish and Chinese settlement in the United States (and other places, too) you will discover that Jews and Chinese people have often lived in close proximity. Consider the major example: New York City’s Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

It is also true that Asians often move into formerly-Jewish areas and/or areas that are undergoing ethnic transition. Therefore, that brings Jews and Chinese (and Italians, and others) living cheek to jowl, with a certain amount of culinary exchange.

The hidden treif argument: Anyone who knows anything about Judaism and Jewish culinary culture knows about the biblical taboo on eating pig.

Shellfish — less so. (As one modern sage put it: Lobster is treif, but pork is anti-semitic).

Both of those forbidden food groups are staples of the Chinese menu (with a hearty shout out to kosher Chinese restaurants).

With the exception of pork ribs, Chinese food offers the Jewish diner the ability to eat treif, but not to have it stare you in the punim. The shrimp and pork is concealed inside egg rolls. It’s there, but it’s not there.

(I had at least two childhood friends whose parents maintained three sets of dishes: milk, meat, and Chinese).

Those arguments for the Jewish relationship with Chinese food are quite common.

But, they would hold true for the Jewish-Chinese food romance on any given day of the year.

Why, then, on erev Christmas? (“Why is this night different from all other nights?”

The cultural stranger argument: I figured this one out several decades ago.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, on 81st Street,

When Jeff and his friends had nowhere to eat.

The burger joint closed, and the pizza place, too

So we sat and we wondered: now what do we do?

Said a friend with bravado: “I have an idea

It’s an old, staid tradition that’s perfectly clear.

We will find a Chinese place that is open,

There will be food there.” That’s what we were hopin’.

And so, down the street, out into the chill,

We found one place open it would fit the bill.

We ate with the owner, his wife, and his kids.

And then he asked shyly: “I assume you are Yids.”

We admitted the truth there was no need to lie.

But, then I was curious. And so, I asked why.

He said with a smile: “It seems to be true

That the only non-Christians are the Chinese and you.

Of course, there are Muslims, and Hindus, and Jain,

But see, they have nothing that compares to lo mein.

When everyone else is looking at mangers,

The Jews and the Chinese are cultural strangers.

It’s great to be different at this holy season.

That is why you are here. It’s a very good reason!”

We went on to order. The food, it was great.

We stayed until seven, and then it was eight.

We said we’d be going, but we would return.

For Jews, it seems, have something to learn.

We are not the only ones who stand out.

To live with our differentness that is what it’s about.

Whatever you choose to do this evening, may the warmth of this season embrace you!


Contents

The relationship Jewish people have with Chinese restaurants during Christmas is well documented. The definitive scholarly and popular treatment of this subject appears in the book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Jewish by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. in the third chapter entitled "We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas." [4]

The origin of Jews eating Chinese food dates to the end of the 19th century on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, because Jews and the Chinese lived close together.

There were nearly a million Eastern European Jews living in New York in 1910 and Jews constituted over "one quarter of the city’s population." The majority of the Chinese immigrated to the Lower East Side from California after the 1880s and many of them went into the restaurant business. [5]

The first mention of the Jewish population eating Chinese food was in 1899 in the American Hebrew Weekly journal. They criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, particularly singling out Chinese food. [6] Jews continued to eat at these establishments.

In 1936, it was reported that there were 18 Chinese restaurants open in heavily populated Jewish areas in the Lower East Side. [6] Jews felt more comfortable at these restaurants than they did at the Italian or German eateries that were prevalent during this time period.

Joshua Plaut wrote of the origin of Jews 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." [6]

Reasons for appeal of Chinese food for Jews Edit

In Lower Manhattan, immigrant Jews would open delis for other Jews, Italians ran restaurants primarily for other Italians, and Germans had many places that would serve only Germans, [5] but Chinese restaurant owners "accept[ed] Jews and other immigrant and ethnic groups as customers without precondition." [6] More of the Jews and Italians would want to eat at Chinese restaurants than they would want to eat at their own ethnic restaurants. [5]

Chinese restaurateurs' lack of anti-Semitism gave Jews a sense of security, and they were also drawn to the restaurants' exoticism. "Of all the peoples whom immigrant Jews and their children met, of all the foods they encountered in America, the Chinese were the most foreign, the most 'un-Jewish'." [5]

A large majority of the Jews saw "eating in Chinese restaurants as an antidote for Jewish parochialism, for the exclusive and overweening emphasis on the culture of the Jews as it had been." [5]

Many of the people whom Tuchman and Levine spoke to felt that eating in a place that was "un-Jewish" showed that they could be "somewhat sophisticated, urbane New Yorkers." [5] The restaurants had unusual wallpaper, eccentric decorations, chopsticks, and exotic food names.

The generations of Jews who grew up in New York after the initial Eastern European Jews immigrated wanted their identity to be based on cosmopolitan ideals. [5]

Chinese food and kosher law Edit

Chinese food allowed Jews to transition from strict kosher to incorporating non-kosher foods into their diets. [6] Chinese cuisine is "unusually well suited to Jewish tastes because, unlike virtually any other cuisine available in America, traditional Chinese cooking rarely uses milk products." [5]

While most first-generation Jews living in America strictly practiced kashrut at all times, many second-generation Jews remained strict in their home observance but became more flexible in the foods they ate outside the home.

The nature of Chinese food allowed them to rationalize this decision, as it is "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."

This process of cutting, chopping, and mincing, referred to as ko p'eng (to cut and cook) in ancient Chinese texts, made the ingredients invisible and thus safe treyf. [5] For instance, pork was hidden and wrapped in wontons that looked similar to Jewish kreplach (dumplings). [6]

Ultimately this gave way to many US-born Jews rejecting kashrut altogether as "impractical and anachronistic". [7] Breaking the rules of kashrut by eating Chinese food allowed the younger generation to assert their independence and further established a "cosmopolitan spirit". [6]

Among Orthodox-Jewish communities in America, Chinese restaurants which fully follow kashrut laws do exist, and are under strict rabbinical supervision.

The relationship that Jews have with Chinese food runs deeper than stereotype. "Eating Chinese [food] has become a meaningful symbol of American Judaism… For in eating Chinese, the Jews found a modern means of expressing their traditional cultural values. The savoring of Chinese food is now a ritualized celebration of immigration, education, family, community, and continuity." [7] Chinese food is considered a staple in the Jewish culture, and the further option of kosher Chinese food is also becoming more available in the US.

Michael Tong of Shun Lee Palace talked about the issue in a 2003 interview with The New York Times: [8]

Welcome to the conundrum that is Christmas New York style: while most restaurants close for the holiday, or in a few cases, stay open and serve a prix fixe meal laden with froufrou, thousands of diners, most of them Jewish, are faced with a dilemma. There's nothing to celebrate at home and no place to eat out, at least if they want a regular dinner. That leaves Chinese restaurants.


Why So Many Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

We all know that eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is a sacred Ashkenazi Jewish tradition! (I kid, I kid. but really). Chinese restaurants became a favorite eatery for Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and to New York City, in particular, in the early twentieth century.

The origin of this venerated Christmas Ashkenazi tradition dates back more than 100 years to the Lower East Side of New York City. Jews found Chinese restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Ashkenazi Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity.

Historically, the first mention of this phenomenon was in 1899. The American Hebrew weekly journal criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out in particular Ashkenazi Jews who flocked to Chinese restaurants. And in 1903, the Yiddish language newspaper The Jewish Daily Forward coined the Yiddish word oysessen (eating out) to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.

To Ashkenazi immigrants, Chinese cuisine clearly was an inexpensive and delicious alternative to the familiar foods served at Jewish delicatessens. It was a happy coincidence that Chinese restaurants stayed open on Christmas Eve and gave Jews across the United States a natural venue in which to partake of their own version of Christmas dinner.

Eating Chinese food on Christmas was a recognized Ashkenazi Jewish preference as early as 1935, when The New York Times reported that restaurant owner Eng Shee Chuck brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children's Home in Newark, N.J. This is the first recorded incidence of Chinese take-out and home delivery to American Jews occurring on Christmas Eve.

"Eating Chinese" soon became a national sensation that defined Christmas-time activity for Jews all over the United States. As immigrants arrived from other parts of Asia, the concept of "eating Chinese" on Christmas Eve has broadened to other types of Asian cuisine, as evidenced by a recent New York Times Magazine article titled "Joy From The World" on December 7, 2014, which reports about a Jewish-Japanese Christmas repast. Sawako Okochi and Aaron Israel meld their traditions together for a shared Christmas meal which includes "okonomi-latke," (a combination of potato pancakes often eaten on Hanukkah and okonomiyaki, a savory pancake popular in Japanese street food). According to the Times, "what started in their home has made its way onto the menu [on Christmas] this year of their restaurant, Shalom Japan, in Williamsburg. "

In a 2018 opinion piece for The New York Times called "Nothing Is More American Than Chinese Food on Christmas," author Lillian Li writes, "Jewish families and others used to flock to Chinese restaurants because that was all that was open, but now it’s almost as traditional as milk and cookies for Santa." Seems like our tradition has caught on!

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