From Gefilte Fish to Chow Mein …

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Reaching back to my childhood memories, I have a distinct recollection of my Hungarian grandmother’s cooking. The daughter of a pastry chef, she was a talented cook and an amazing baker. I remember homemade gefilte fish, babka, and steaming bowls of chicken soup in which matzoh balls, kreplach and farfal were all floating. I also remember chicken chow mein.

In retrospect, chow mein was not really consistent with the rest of her culinary repertoire. I clearly remember the stewed chicken, onions, celery, and green pepper. I also remember the sliced water chestnuts and toasted noodles. (In those days, we didn’t call it pasta!) Anyway, it did not occur to me until much later in life that chow mein was not what my Christian friends were eating at their grandmothers’ tables. So what of it? Given the long-rooted and clearly demonstrated Jewish affinity for Chinese food, why would it be surprising that Chinese dishes, albeit thoroughly Americanized ones, would turn up in my Hungarian grandmother’s Jewish kitchen?

I am still trying to verify whether my grandmother had any cookbooks or recipe clippings (she may have had “a few”). So, in absence of clear evidence, I have conducted a bit of research. It was the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (second ed.) that pointed the way to The Settlement Cookbook, a tome with decidedly Jewish roots. According to Tablet Magazine’s Leah Koenig, the Settlement Cookbook was “the brainchild of a turn-of-the-century Jewish reformer and philanthropist named Lizzie Black Kander.” In her seminal article about early Jewish cookbooks entitled “Kitchen Judaism,” preeminent food historian and scholar, Professor Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett calls Kander “the force behind the book.” The same late 19th and early 20th centuries waves of Jewish immigration that have been well-documented in the Lower East Side of New York City also played out in other cities, albiet to a lesser extent. These cities included Milwaukee, where Kander lived. Kander’s origins were in part German-Jewish. When successive waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in Milwaukee, Kander took steps to help them to settle in and to Americanize. Koenig writes: “Kander’s most influential project was a set of cooking classes she developed for new immigrants held at a local settlement house. During the series, students learned how to prepare American staples like pot roast, potato salad, and vanilla ice cream. In addition to culinary instruction, the lessons covered basic nutrition and tips for running a clean and efficient household.”

In 1901, Kandor’s accomplished an extraordinary feat, the publishing of a comprehensive resource known as The Settlement Cookbook. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, over many decades and new editions, the original 200-page digest was filled with an array of recipes deriving from: Kander’s own kitchen; the classes; the German-Jewish matrons associated with the project; friends; and, prominent chefs. Over time, The Settlement Cookbook transmogrified into a 560+ page tome. And, as its girth expanded, so did its reach. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, the earlier editions contained trayf recipes “in the characteristic way” such as: “broiled live lobster, frog legs à la Newburg, shrimp à la Creole, fried oysters, creamed crab meat, and crawfish butter” and for non-kosher hindquarters of beef; however, pork products were for the most part absent.  [Later editions notably include pork products.] Kander, like many of her German-Jewish contemporaries, was not traditionally observant–a fact that created a cultural divide between them and the “new” East European immigrants. The cookbook traversed that cultural divide. According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, it was the wide-ranging recipes from the German-Jewish and European culinary traditions that extended the appeal of this book beyond the local Jewish community to, at first, the German community of Milwaukee and later to a national audience. Lastly, Koenig notes that The Settlement Cookbook, in its 41st printing, is one of the most highly successful cookbooks of all time.

So it was to a somewhat early edition of this resource that I turned to with respect to Chow Mein. [I was able to access an on-line copy of the tenth edition, published in 1920.] Not only did I find a recipe for chow mein, but also two different chop suey recipes. Interestingly, each of these recipes requires the addition of pork (something my grandmother would never have used).

Whether or not my grandmother had a copy, or whether she received the recipe from someone else, or whether she made it up on her own, in twentieth century America, chow mein apparently was as Jewish as gefilte fish!

See: Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, “Kitchen Judaism,” https://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/web/kitchenjudaism.pdf.

See: Leah Koenig, https://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/199721/settlement-cook-book

For a discussion on the mythical origins of chop suey, see: https://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/2014/8/29/the-many-origin-stories-of-chop-suey

For an on-line edition of The Settlement Cookbook, see: https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Settlement_Cook_Book.html?id=gNYqAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false

To see what we are doing, see: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

Lastly, for our comprehensive resource on American Jews and Christmas, see: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas), and, of course, this blog!

 

 

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Tradition….Tradition!

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The idea of Jews attending movies on Christmas Eve is neither new nor without historical grounding. In prior a blog posting (December 21, 2015: “Meet Me at the Movies on Christmas Eve”), the historical roots of this Jewish Christmas-time tradition are explored. It is interesting to note that new layers of tradition continue to be added to this activity.

According to Tom Tugend of the JTA (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency), for 11 years, Greg Laemmle, co-owner of a chain of eight art-house cinemas in the Los Angeles area, has screened the classic movie “Fiddler on the Roof” on Christmas Eve. The screenings (in several venues) has taken on Rocky Horror-like proportions, with audience members dressed as characters from Anatevka, the fictional shtetl in which Fiddler is set. Costume contests are held. Fiddler trivia quizzes are highly competitive. A host or hostess, often a celebrity, conducts the event, “keeping the energy level high by leading audience members in song.” This has become, “in ‘Fiddler’ parlance, a tradition.”

And, as with any good idea, success has bred imitation in Chicago (at the Music Box theater) and in Seattle, where the screening on Christmas Day will be accompanied by live klezmer music and kosher Chinese food.

Tugend further reports that, when asked about the screening on Christmas Eve (this year coincident with Erev Shabbat), Laemmle said “When Christmas occurs during the Hanukkah period, we display a lighted menorah in the lobby, and when it coincides with Shabbat, we say the blessings over the wine and challah.”

Because over the years, the audience has become multi-denominational, Laemmle remarks: “We make sure that our Christmas Eve show ends well before 12 o’clock….That way, patrons who wish to do so can walk to a nearby church and attend Midnight Mass.”

Or, as Turgend quips, “Only in America.”

See: https://www.jta.org/2018/12/18/culture/a-new-jewish-christmas-tradition-watching-fiddler-on-the-roof-at-your-local-movie-theater

For more on Jews attending movies on Christmas Eve, see blog posting dated December 21, 2015: “Meet Me at the Movies on Christmas Eve” and also the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

The War Between Gefilte Fish and Chop Suey!

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Chinese restaurants are a favorite eatery for Jews on Christmas. Where does this tradition come from? Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to New York City in the early twentieth century lived in close proximity to other ethnic groups. As we have mentioned in our earlier blog posting “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” on December 09, 2014, the origin of this venerated Christmas Jewish tradition dates back over one hundred 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 Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity.

The first mention of this phenomenon was in 1899 whereby 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 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.”

Furthermore, Jews chose Chinese restaurants over other ethnic cuisines, such as Italian, because of the absence of any Christian symbols in these venues. The Chinese restaurant was, as sociologists Tuchman and Levine point out, a “safe treyf” (safe non-kosher food) 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 that of Jewish kreplach.” Also, the absence of milk in Chinese cuisine shields Jewish patrons from mixing meat with milk, a violation of kosher laws. In essence, eating Chinese food helped ease the transition from kosher to non-kosher eating.

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 old and new world eating habits. “Down with Chop Suey! Long Live Gefilte Fish!” was the battle cry sounded and backlash waged by those defending traditional cultural habits.

The following advertisement appeared in the Yiddish Daily Forward on December 2, 1922:

Translation as follows:

YOU MUST:

Eat and dance with us, where you’ll feel at home

TANGERINE GARDENS

556 FULTON STREET near FLATBUSH AVE

Phone, Sterling 2797 Brooklyn N.Y.

CHINESE DINNER

75 Cents

service from 5-9 pm

CHICKEN CHOW MEIN

our speciality

MENU

chicken mushroom soup

ENTREE

chicken mushroom chow mein

subgum chow mein

chicken chop suey with mushrooms or pineapple

lobster or subgum eng peyang

DESSERTS

miniature preserved oranges and almond cakes

and oolong tea

To see what we are doing, see: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

For more on this, see AKosherChristmas Blog Post “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” on December 09, 2014,  and, of course, the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

 

All I want for Christmas is… Moo-shu!

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The Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD), a “new kind of museum that brings the world of food to life with exhibits you can taste, touch, and smell” is hosting an immersive culinary and cultural experience CHOW x JUDAISM to explore the nexus between Jews, Chinese Food, and Christmas! Or, in MOFAD’s own words: “to learn more about how these two communities found a seat at the same table.”

CHOW x JUDAISM is on Friday, December 21, 2018 from 6:30 pm until 9:00 pm at MOFAD Lab, 62 Bayard Street in Brooklyn, New York, and will feature:

  • Live Chef Demo by Chef Julie Cole (Operations Manager & Chef, Nom Wah Tea Parlor) and tastings prepared by MOFAD’s executive chef
  • Engaging Presentation by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut (Author, A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish)
  • “Speed Dialogues” facilitated by comedians Mic Nguyen and Fumi Abe (Co-Hosts, Asian Not Asian podcast)
  • Complimentary beer provided by Brooklyn Brewery
  • A Kosher Chinese Night Market featuring small bites and Kosher wines

For more information and tickets, see: https://www.mofad.org/events/chow-x-judaism

https://www.brooklynpaper.com/stories/41/51/24-jewish-chinese-christmas-talk-2018-12-21-bk.html

https://forward.com/culture/416273/why-do-jews-eat-chinese-food-on-christmas/

See also: https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/12/21/18151903/history-jews-chinese-food-christmas-kosher-american

Also, see AKosherChristmas Blog Post “We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas” (December 15, 2015) and, of course, the preeminent resource on American Jews and Christmas: A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. (which is available on amazon.com at https://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss_2?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=a+kosher+christmas).

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy on Christmas: An American Jewish Tradition

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Jews who eat at Chinese Restaurants on Christmas across the United States form a loosely extended yet temporal community that takes Jewish identity seriously. It didn’t take long for one enterprising, forward –thinking and self-proclaimed Chinese food enthusiast to conceive of the idea of adding entertainment to the eating experience. Quite simply, it started as a joke. In October 1993, a stand-up comedian named Lisa Geduldig, who resides in San Francisco, California, was hired to perform at what she thought was a women’s cabaret evening at a comedy club in South Hadley, Massachusetts. When she arrived at the venue, Lisa realized that she had, in fact, been hired to tell Jewish Jokes at the Peking Garden Club, a Chinese restaurant. On her website, Lisa Geduldig relates how she told an old summer camp friend about the irony of combining an evening of Jewish humor and Chinese food.

In San Francisco, a couple of months after this conversation, Lisa inaugurated the first Kung Pao Kosher Comedy as an evening of Jewish stand-up comedy in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. When Lisa conceived of the event, she hoped to create a hermetic Jewish environment where guests could focus on Jewish tradition and identity and bypass Christmas. “Jewish people feel alienated that time of year and just like to have something to celebrate instead of hiding under the covers until the end of December…I mean you get very Christmas-ed to death from November 27 on…You just feel like a stranger in a strange land  for the entire month of December.”

Lisa’s vision has proven highly successful. Since its inception, Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has increased every year, and now, after more than two decades, Jews consider it to be an annual Christmastime tradition. It is a seminal event in modern comedic performance focused on Christmas. At Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, which spans 6 performances over 3 days and attracts thousands of attendees, Jewish stand-up comedians, some hailing from the Borsht Belt, such as Shelly  Berman, David Brenner, Henny Youngman, and Freddie Roman have all headlined, joking about Christmas and Hanukkah in ways that would have made their immigrant ancestors blush. Also represented is a younger generation of comedians who range in age from twenty to forty-five, such as Lisa Kron in 2003 and Jonathan Katz in 2009. Lisa Geduldig is aware that the world of comedy historically has been dominated by men. It is a badge of honor for her that new female comedians are making their mark and are present on the stage at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy.

Lampooning both Hanukkah and Christmas bypasses tension often experienced by Jews for being different and marginalized during the holiday season. Comedians raise awareness of the challenge of having to recognize Christmas as important to American society while at the same time desiring to escape its influence. At Kung Pao, humor is the chosen vehicle employed by a Jewish minority to confront a holiday season dominated by the Christian majority. Humor is a weapon comedians use to take cultural revenge on Christmas, thereby symbolically robbing the holiday of its ability to intimidate.  One repeat patron, a 40-something doctor explained ”I am an outsider. It is someone else’s birthday party and I’m not invited. ..we all commiserated about living through and being an outsider for one month a year…I will attend Kung Pao show next year because I belong to the group…”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy has become a model for other similar Christmas Eve Jewish comedy banquets and has set the trend for Jewish social gatherings across the country. Over the years, Jewish organizations and comedy clubs in American cities have copied Lisa Geduldig’s event format by hosting a Christmas Eve dinner of Chinese food followed by Jewish a comedy show; however, none of them have the staying power of Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, an American tradition spanning twenty-three years!

Until recently those American who rejected Christmas, including Jews, were considered outsiders. By joining together on Christmas at entertainment venues across the United States to celebrate and proclaim Jewish identity, Jews achieve the special status of insider, representing those who seek alternative, acceptable means to celebrate the holiday season As one young Jewish woman observed while waiting to enter a Kung Pao Kosher Comedy performance, “I want to be with other Jews celebrating, doing something that’s not Christmas, that’s ‘un-Christmas.’ I want to be an insider, not an outsider. Being here at Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, I don’t feel like an outsider.”

Kung Pao Kosher Comedy, in its 23rd year, runs from December 24th – 26th and this year, features performances by: Wendy Liebman, Dana Eagle, Mike Fine, and Lisa Geduldig. http://www.KosherComedy.com

Examples of evenings across America this Christmas featuring Chinese food with a cultural performance include:

  • The Moo Shu Jew Show in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • An evening of Chinese Food and Comedy at the dim sum emporium Hei Lei Moon in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Strip Dreidel, Chinese Food and Woody Allen Movie Night in San Francisco, California
  • An evening of laugh-out-loud comedy and tasty Chinese food, the Oshman Family JCC, Palo Alto, California
  • Kung Pao Shabbat, an evening of Chinese food and Klezmer music, Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew

We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas!

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The tradition of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is so pervasive that it has been the catalyst for many a Yuletide parody. Erev Christmas was written by veteran storyteller Bruce Marcus and Lori Factor (now Factor-Marcus) and originally published by The Boston Globe newspaper in 1993. (The version that appears below was slightly revised in September of 2011). These two Boston-area Jews chronicled their personal Christmas Eve quest for Chinese food with some measure of comic license, adding to the large canon of verse satirizing the well-known poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clemente Clarke Moore.

Erev Christmas [Christmas Eve]

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and we, being Jews,

my girlfriend and me – we had nothing to do.

The Gentiles were home, hanging stockings with care,

secure in their knowledge St. Nick would be there.

But for us, once the Chanukah candles burned down,

there was nothing but boredom all over town.

The malls and the theaters were all closed up tight;

there weren’t any concerts to go to that night.

A dance would have saved us, some ballroom or swing,

but we combed through the papers; there wasn’t a thing.

Outside the window sat two feet of snow;

with the wind-chill, they said, it was fifteen below.

And while all I could do was sit there and brood,

my gal saved the night and called out: “Chinese food!”

So we ran to the closet, grabbed hats, mitts, and boots –

to cover our heads, our hands and out foots.

We pulled on our jackets, all puffy with down,

and boarded the T, bound for Chinatown.

The train nearly empty, it rolled through the stops,

while visions of wantons danced through our kopfs.

We hopped off at Park Street; the Common was bright,

with fresh-fallen snow and the trees strung with lights,

then crept through “The Zone” with its bums and its thugs,

and entrepreneurs pushing ladies and drugs.

At last we reached Chinatown, rushed through the gate,

Past bakeries, markets, shops and cafes,

in search of a restaurant: “Which one? Let’s decide!”

We chose “Hunan Chazer,” and ventured inside.

 

Around us sat others, their platters piled high

with the finest of fine foods their money could buy:

There was roast duck and fried squid (sweet, sour and spiced),

dried beef and mixed veggies, lo mein and fried rice.

There was whole fish and moo shi and shrimp chow mee foon,

and General Gau’s chicken and ma po tofu…

When at last we decided, and the waiter did call,

we said: “Skip the menu!” and ordered it all.

And when in due time the food was all made,

it came to the table in a sort of parade.

Before us sat dim sum, spare ribs and egg rolls,

and four different soups, in four great, huge bowls.

And chicken wings! Dumplings! And beef teriyakis!

And fried scallion pancakes—‘cause they’re kinda like latkes.

 

The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild,

and higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled.

And while this went on, we were aware

every diner around us had started to stare.

Their jaws hanging open, they looked on unblinking;

some dropped their teacups, some drooled without thinking.

So much piled up, one dish, then another,

my girlfriend and I couldn’t see one another!

 

Now we sat there, we two, without proper utensils,

while they handed us something that looked like two pencils.

We poked and we jabbed till our fingers were sore,

and half of our dinner wound up on the floor.

We tried – How we tried! – but, sad truth to tell,

ten long minutes later and still hungry as heck,

we swallowed our pride, feeling vaguely like dorks,

and called to our waiter to bring us two forks.

 

Then we fressed and we feasted, we slurped and we munched;

we noshed and we supped, we breakfast and lunched.

We ate near to bursting and drank down our teas,

and barely had room for the fortune cookies.

But my fortune was perfect; it summed up the mood

when it said: “Pork is kosher, when it’s in Chinese food.”

And my girlfriend—well…she got a real winner;

Hers said: ‘Your companion will pay for the dinner.”

 

Our bellies were full and at last it was time

to travel back home and write down this rhyme

of our Chinatown trek (and to privately speak

about trying to refine our chopstick technique).

The MSG spun ‘round and ‘round in our heads,

and we tripped and we laughed, and gaily we said,

as we schlepped all our leftovers home through the night:

“Good yom tov to all—and to all a Good Night!

This parody lampoons several recurring themes pervasive in the Jewish affinity for Chinese food: the Jewish penchant for Chinese food on Christmas, the ineptness of eating with chopsticks, a lack of understanding of what foods are being referred to because of their Chinese names, and the passion with which they are eaten.  Selecting “Hunan Chazer” as the restaurant of choice reflects the irony of Jews eating non-kosher food, called in Yiddish “chazer,” or pig. The boisterousness of the evening is described by the food that kept coming (“The courses kept coming, from spicy to mild, and higher and higher toward the ceiling were piled”), which was contrasted with the boredom they experienced at home on Christmas Eve. The couple’s euphoria is symbolized by the MSG that was present to heighten the couple’s awareness: “The MSG spun round and round in our heads, and we tripped and we laughed ….”

According to Bruce Marcus and Lori Factor-Marcus, “We began Erev Christmas on December 24, 1992 – one year to the day before it was published on the op-ed page of the Boston Globe – on the back of a placemat in a restaurant in Boston’s Chinatown. In those days, the Boston Globe published Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” on the front page every December 24th. That poem was our inspiration; we decided to write a spoof that described how we spent our Christmas Eve…We took some flak for Erev Christmas. After it was published, a few people took us to task for representing non-traditional Jewish dietary habits. Most, however, seemed to take our doggerel in the playful spirit in which it was written. And lastly, when asked if this is a true story (and sometimes even when we are not asked), we explain to folks that we remember there being little or no snow on the ground on Christmas Eve, 1992, and we actually do know how to use chopsticks.” The first performance of the poem by Marcus was at a Jewish Storyteller’s Coalition. Marcus’s performance of “Erev Christmas” has become part of the American Jewish folk tradition through it widespread dissemination by e-mail, print media and YouTube.

Other parodies, including some that have appeared on YouTube, mimic the function of Chinese restaurants to save Jews from being bored on Christmas. In 2006, Brandon Walker composed the enormously popular song “Chinese Food on Christmas,” as reflected by the high number of visits to this YouTube video. In 2006 there were over 583,000 visits to the site while in 2007 there were three times as many and over 2,000 comments. By 2015, the song had 1,900,000 viewings. In the lyrics of his YouTube parody, Brandon wakes up on Christmas day and sees a Christmas tree barren of presents because Santa Claus was not going to appear in a Jewish house. Brandon sings, “What’s a Jew to do on Christmas?” The answer is: “I eat Chinese on Christmas because there ain’t much to do on Christmas.”  Once at the restaurant, he joins a band that turns this culinary experience into a Jewish celebration, complete with stereotypical Jewish music, a Jewish wedding dance (lifting the groom off the floor while seated in a chair), and the blowing of the shofar. The song’s music and dance address the depth to which eating Chinese food has become integrated in the American Jewish psyche and how happy Jews are to be immersed in activities on Christmas Eve and Day.

See prior blog posting: “So What About Jews and Chinese Food?” (December 9, 2014)

Chapter 3 of  A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season To Be Jewish by Joshua Eli Plaut provides the definitive history of the origin of Jews eating Chinese Food and its evolution into a sacred secular Jewish ritual.

For a definitive list of Chinese restaurants in NYC catering to the busiest day of the year for Chinese food, see: A New Yorker’s Guide to Chinese Food for Christmas (http://www.amny.com/eat-and-drink/chinese-food-for-christmas-in-new-york-city-1.9703839)

So What About Jews and Chinese Food?

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We all know that eating Chinese food on Christmas Eve is a sacred Jewish tradition. 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 Jewish tradition dates back over one hundred 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 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 Jews who flocked to Chinese restaurants.  And in 1903, the Yiddish language newspaper the Jewish Daily Forward coined the Yiddish word oysesseneating out–to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside the home in New York City.

Chinese cuisine clearly was an inexpensive and exotic alternative to the more familiar and expensive 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” on Christmas was a recognized 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, New Jersey. 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 “easting Chinese” on Christmas Eve has broadened to other types of Asian cuisine, as evidenced by a recent New York Times Magazine article  entitled “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 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…”

As a popular joke reflecting on this affinity for Jews to eat in Chinese restaurants states: “The Jewish people are 5000 years old and the Chinese people are 3000 years old. So what did the Jews eat for 2000 years?” Perhaps you have a story to share about your own Christmas Eve and Christmas Day restaurant outing!