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:
Eat and dance with us, where you’ll feel at home
556 FULTON STREET near FLATBUSH AVE
Phone, Sterling 2797 Brooklyn N.Y.
service from 5-9 pm
CHICKEN CHOW MEIN
chicken mushroom soup
chicken mushroom chow mein
subgum chow mein
chicken chop suey with mushrooms or pineapple
lobster or subgum eng peyang
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).