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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Jewish Santas: A Mixed Bag…

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Perhaps the most interesting and ironic form of Jewish volunteerism during Christmastime is the phenomenon of the Jewish Santa Claus–Jews who don Santa outfits to play the role of Santa at retail businesses, hospitals, shelters, and private homes. Examples are myriad as illustrated by comedian Alan King, who often told about his encounter with a Yiddish-speaking Santa Claus at the corner of 57th Street in Manhattan. The Jewish immigrant from Ukraine justifies to Alan King his “ho-ho-ho” getup by quipping in Yiddish: “Men makht a lebn“—a man has to make a living!

A pay check, however, is not the main reason Jews volunteer to dress up as Santa. Jews who act out the part of Santa do so for altruistic reasons, some for evoking pleasure and others because Christmas was part of their holiday celebration growing up. Still others, like the one in Alan King’s bit, may do so for commercial gain. No matter the reason or combination of reasons, certain Jewish Santas stand out from the so-called mainstream. Ben Sales of the JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency) recently reported about Rick Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew from Atlanta whose full-time profession is to be Santa: “If you look at the world as children do, that’s a better feeling. I’m a better person and a better Jew because I’m Santa.” Rosenthal, according to Sales, has expanded upon his Santa profession. He and his wife run a Santa school, Northern Lights Santa Academy, that “hosts three-day weekend seminars on how to be Santa. The school covers everything from fashioning a good costume to making sure you have legal and insurance protection in place. But the seminars also promise fun times, like a Christmas movie screening and a photo op with a live reindeer. The couple also runs the National Santa Agency, which books a network of 100 Santas, Mrs. Clauses and elves for private parties and events.” And, as Sales reports, Rosenthal is a “member of the International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas.”

See: https://www.jta.org/2018/12/10/culture/this-santa-claus-is-an-orthodox-jew

For another current example of a Jewish Santa, see: http://jewishjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/2018_12.20_JewishJournal.pdf

For more on this topic, See AKosherChristmas blog posting “Where Can I Get a Santa Suit?” dated December 2, 2102, 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).

 

 

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).

 

Merry Marinara!

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The fact that Hanukkah arrives so early this year (December 2) has given a bit of a breather from the cultural discordance of the Christmas/Hanukkah season. However, here and there, we find a few noteworthy items that hark to bigger issues.

In a Huffington Post parent advice column (November 29, 2018) penned by “author, speaker and dad” Doyin Richards, the following letter appears:

“My family is Jewish, and we recently moved from Massachusetts to Texas for my husband’s job. Last week, my 11-year-old son said “happy holidays!” to the mom who lives across the street. According to my son and my husband (who was present), she got visibly upset and replied, ‘Don’t say that to me! We celebrate Christmas here!’

My son is friends with her son and now feels uncomfortable hanging out with him when she’s around. My husband says we shouldn’t makes waves since we’re newbies in this conservative part of town. How should we handle this?”

Even though Richard’s response to this letter is well-reasoned and succinct, he apparently feels a need to identify himself as Christian in order to frame his answer. (Perhaps in today’s divisive times, this accords him a higher level of authority on the subject.) He begins with: “the only day it makes sense to wish someone a merry Christmas is on Dec. 25. After all, I’m not rolling up to people in October wishing them a happy Thanksgiving. Are you?“  Richards simply does not understand how or why the statement “happy holidays” has been conflated to a war on Christmas. He proffers the following (very apt) metaphor (which he had apparently used for explanation to his toddler daughters when they were young):

“Let’s say a restaurant serves up some amazing mozzarella sticks at a buffet. Previously, this restaurant only offered marinara sauce to dip them in, because it was the only sauce the majority of its patrons enjoyed. But after observing its customers for a while, this establishment noticed that some people wanted other options. So the owners did the wise thing and created a “sauce” section in the buffet that also included ranch dressing, honey mustard, pesto and some secret sauce that nobody is quite sure of. The bottom line: Customers are still be able to stuff their faces with marinara if they choose, it’s just that marinara will be included in a section with other sauces as well.”

Richards concludes that Happy Holidays is a greeting of inclusion because ”What guy boycotts a restaurant because he believes there’s a ‘war against marinara sauce’”?

Richards calls out the insistence upon wishing someone a Merry Christmas to be the height of selfishness, which “displays infantile levels of emotional maturity.” [One might draw parallels to the captains of the so-called war on Christmas.] He supports this by citing demographic data and a falling level of religious observance, which do not support the concept of a solely Christian America.

Richards then offers his advice: “You could have your kid take the easy way out here by telling him to greet this woman with “merry Christmas” going forward, but where’s the lesson in that? You’ve raised a kid to be inclusive. That should be celebrated, not ignored.”  He advises the woman to tell her son to continue to say “happy holidays” and, if someone reacts in a negative way to respond: “My goal is to cover everyone’s beliefs, including people who don’t celebrate Christmas, because they should get to enjoy the holiday season, too. I mean, Christmas is a part of those happy holidays I mentioned.”

Even though this may be a bit of a mouthful for a young teen to respond to an adult, the takeaway is clear. No one, adult or child, should have to conform to the ideas of those who are not inclusive. Richards concludes by contextualizing the so-called “war on Christmas”: “One last thing, because I feel a need to put this into perspective for a moment: Mothers and their babies are getting tear-gassed at our nation’s border, yet this woman is experiencing a blood pressure spike over a pleasant seasonal greeting by a polite 11-year-old? Really?! We have much bigger fish ― err, mozzarella sticks ― to fry these days. Happy holidays!”

Bravo!

For other insights on this subject, see A Kosher Christmas Blog posting “It’s That Time of Year Again” (October 23, 2017). And of course, the preeminent resources 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).

 

 

If I had a Hammer…

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According to Gabe Friedman of the JTA posted on November 7, 2017, the Hebrew Hammer is back…and this time, with a vengeance. As many may recall, Adam Goldberg played a quintessentially, and oft-times outlandish, Jewish superhero in a 2003 film by Jonathan Kesselman.  According to Friedman: “The film has become a cult classic, and its protagonist, who wears a yarmulke and a necklace with a machine gun pendant, has become a go-to symbol of Jewish toughness — something that’s rarely found in the pop culture zeitgeist.”

The Hebrew Hammer has been in retirement ever since. However, the recent political climate has motivated the team to reprise the Hebrew Hammer in a sequel. Golberg, Kesselman and producer Harrison Huffman have initiated a crowdfunding project to help bring the film to fruition:

see:  https://equity.indiegogo.com/offerings/hebrew-hammer-2/

For more about Adam Goldberg and his recent accomplishments as well as his recent on-line engagement with anti-Semitic twitter trolls, see: https://www.jta.org/2017/11/07/life-religion/a-hebrew-hammer-sequel-is-coming-motivated-by-trump-and-anti-semitic-twitter-trolls

 

 

The Christmas Mitzvah: ‘Tis The Season To Be Giving!

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Charity is integral to the Christmas holiday season. For more than 150 years, Americans have attached special significance to giving charity and volunteering on Christmas as ways to fulfill the holiday’s spiritual mission. The act of charity mutually binds the benefactor and the recipient through civic and religious obligation. Charitable organizations and agencies call upon citizens to open their hearts and their check-books to help the disadvantaged during this period.

Christmastime charity in the United States can be linked to two seminal events: the publication by Charles Dickens of his composition A Christmas Carol in 1843, which heightened readers’ awareness to the importance of being beneficent on Christmas; and, New York intellectual and journalist Margaret Fuller’s highly publicized Christmas Day visit to the New York Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in 1844, which turned charitable giving to children into a civic ritual.

Charity among Jews in the United States through the early 1800s was localized in synagogues, organized for the purpose of taking care of newly arriving Sephardi Jews. As a result of the large-scale German Jewish immigration beginning in 1820, philanthropic organizations were formed to assist landsman—fellow countrymen—to establish societies based on town of origin. As the Jewish population grew, charities were filtered through institutional agencies that transcended regional interests. In 1819, Rebecca Gratz, the American-born descendant of German immigrants, established the Hebrew Female Benevolent Association of Philadelphia, the first independent Jewish charity in America. The association offered food, clothing, shelter, fuel, an employment agency, and traveler’s aid to Jews in distress. Another compelling reason for assisting Jews from within the community emerged: during periods of anti-Semitism Jews found it uncomfortable to use non-Jewish charitable organizations because of the intensive proselytizing by agency staff.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was strong enough to consider joining in the charitable Christmas fever that swept America. Jews, who often sat on the sidelines while their many American neighbors celebrated their December holiday, saw in this outpouring of Christmas charity an opportunity to be part of a new American tradition. Perhaps the earliest written record of Jews performing charitable acts on Christmas Day in America dates to 1884, forty years after Margaret Fuller’s Christmas Day visit to needy children. The Cincinnati Jewish newspaper, the American Israelite, acknowledged in its pages the public Jewish charitable efforts at Christmastime. It cited the example of Hy King, Jr., President of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, who sent a letter on December 22, 1884 to the organizer of a local Christmas collection along with a wagonload of presents:

Mrs. Perry, Dear Madam: As President of the Washington Hebrew Congregation, permit me to tender to you a donation of Christmas presents to gladden the hearts of the poor little ones. Your noble charitable work should appeal to all creeds. I shall only deem it a duty, but also a pleasure, to assist in all your charitable works.”

In an 1885 article printed in The American Israelite, the author acknowledge that Jews had enthusiastically endorsed charitable giving to their non-Jewish neighbors: “It is the custom here, as in other cities to provide a hearty meal for all the poor children of the vicinity during the Christmas holiday…Many of our Hebrew families, recognizing that the movement was to make children happy, set aside all questions of faith and doctrine and contributed very liberally in money and material.”

As early as one hundred twenty years ago, the American Jewish press recognized the correlation between poverty and charitable giving to the poor at Christmastime. A December 1900 article in the Jewish Daily Forward described the charitable giving that was characteristic of the general society at large during the holiday season with the following observation:

Capitalist newspapers boast that this Christmas capitalists have given more to charity than during any Christmas in previous years. This is true. The reason is that there have never been as many poor people asking for charity as there are this year. Many of the Christmas dinners for the poor were attended by thousands of people. The Salvation Army alone served 19,000 dinners on Christmas Day, beginning at 10:00 am. At no other time of the year can one see so clearly the masses of poor, the wholesale poverty, than on that day when the “redeemer of humankind” was born.

This awareness of poverty expressed in the pages of the Jewish Daily Forward was an experience that the poor European Jewish immigrants in New York knew about first-hand.

American Jewish Charitable efforts soon began to focus not just on monetary aid but on relieving fellow Americans from their work so that they could instead spend Christmas Day with family. On December 29, 1927, an editorial in the American Israelite reported on the feelings of reciprocity that pervaded between Americans who celebrated Christmas and the Jews working in the New York City Post Office. Jews agreed to substitute for their colleagues at work during Christmas, and non-Jews offered to work for Jewish employees on the Jewish high holidays. The same reciprocal relationship occurred in hospitals, the military and government agencies. The American Israelite of December 28, 1944 noted that “Jews ask extra duty so Christian buddies may observe Christmas.”

During the 1960s and continuing until the present, this generosity of spirit intensified and extended to helping those outside of one’s immediate work environment. Jews began to volunteer individually and communally in hospitals, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior citizen facilities and other charitable venues. The Christmas Mitzvah (coined in my book A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish), Jews engaging in charitable acts of volunteerism on Christmas, has become a widespread phenomenon throughout America. The Christmas Mitzvah is a distinctly Jewish response to Christmas–Jews in America volunteer and engage in charitable acts that enable their fellow Americans to celebrate Christmas.

 

 

Meet You At the Movies on Christmas Eve: The Origin of a Jewish Tradition

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Jews in America, particularly during the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century, employed a multitude of strategies to face the particular challenges of being outsiders to Christmas and to overcome feelings of exclusion and isolation. These strategies include attending events that concentrate on bringing family and friends together in temporary and public settings, thereby providing not only a safe haven but also opportunities to positively identify as Jews and as Americans. Going to the movies certainly falls within this category. However, rather than being a modern cultural innovation, the concept of Jews going to the movies on Christmas Eve and Christmas day is steeped in long-standing tradition.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, even though most commercial establishments were closed on Christmas, immigrant Jews frequented entertainment venues that catered to Americans who did not celebrate Christmas. Jews residing in New York City were fortunate in being surrounded by a world of entertainment consisting of Yiddish theater, movies, arcades, dance halls, cafes and vaudeville houses to which, in fact, Jews contributed as store owners, actors, movie theater proprietors, and audiences. The fact that Jews lived in crowded conditions in the Lower East Side meant that entertainment centers catered to a built-in constituency that clamored for diversion from their long and difficult living and working conditions. Jews on the Lower East Side of Manhattan became avid purveyors and consumers of commercial leisure. Eastern European Jews, who spoke Yiddish, enjoyed attending performances of the Yiddish theater, which stayed open on Christmas. As early as 1917, theater advertisements for plays being performed on Christmas Day appeared in the Yiddish press; some plays actually opened on Christmas.

According to Jewish film scholar Judith Thissen, who has extensively researched Jewish patronage of the movies on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a film that generated significant controversy at that time was entitled “The Jew’s Christmas.” The narrative involves a rabbi who sells his copy of the Torah to buy a Christmas tree for a poor little girl. It is ultimately revealed that this little girl is the Rabbi’s granddaughter and the film ends happily with the family reunited around the Christmas tree. According to Thissen, Moving Picture World documented that a large delegation of rabbis witnessed the projection of the film and was satisfied with the story and its treatment of Jewish ceremony and custom. The rabbis did, however, look with disfavor on the title of the film. Thissen then asserts that the film was viewed with less tolerance by Tageblatt finding the last scenes particularly offensive.

On a broader scale, the Lower East Side saw the expansion of the nickelodeon, a moving picture of short-duration accompanied by illustrated songs. The price of admittance was a nickel.  This medium was very popular among Jewish residents; nickelodeon shows ran in a continuous loop from morning until evening. People went from one theater to the next: “It is heaven and earth and moving pictures,” reported the Forward in May 1908. There were more nickelodeons situated in the Lower East Side than anywhere else in New York City. Andrew Heinze notes that nineteen nickel theaters were scattered along the Second and Third Avenue streetcar lines of the East Side. By 1908, forty-two were located in or adjacent to the Lower East Side and ten were in the uptown area branded as Jewish Harlem.  Adolph Zukor was the first nickel theater entrepreneur in Manhattan who opened in 1904 a modest theater above his penny arcade that was accessible through a glass staircase beneath which water cascaded over lights of changing hue.  On Jewish holidays, the nickelodeons and Yiddish theaters attracted big crowds.

The high attendance levels of Jewish audiences in movie theaters did not go unnoticed. Christian authorities apparently were distressed by the fact that Jews went to the movies on Christmas Eve in New York. Resultantly, Mayor George B. McClellan, Jr. ordered the closing of all New York City nickelodeons on December 24, 1908, believing that the new medium degraded community morals. The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures was founded in 1909 to protest the Mayor’s censorship. Its lobbying effort was successful in facilitating the opening of nickelodeons once again on Christmas.

Which brings us to today! According to one Long Island Native, now living in San Francisco, “there seems to be an unwritten law that Jews in New York have to go to a Chinese Restaurant and then a movie on Christmas Eve.”

For an in-depth discussion of this phenomenon, see Chapter One of A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish (Rutgers University Press, 2012) entitled “Coming to the New World: Can The American Jew Keep Christmas?”

For an in-cinema experience: see Seth Rogan’s recently released film: The Night Before.

For a listing of recommended movies, old and new, to view on Christmas Eve via NetFlix, see: http://www.buzzfeed.com/louispeitzman/jewish-movies-to-watch-on-christmas#.xgYymgxlP