When Did Jewish Americans Start Eating Chinese Food For Christmas?
Jewish Americans celebrate a lot of things, but Christmas isn't usually one of them. Even with Santa Claus, Rudolph, and the other secular trappings, a holiday keyed to the birth of Jesus just isn't compatible with Jewish beliefs. But in not celebrating Christmas, Jewish Americans in New York City ended up creating their own particular tradition in the early 20th century. And it has taken on a celebratory flair, and even become widespread throughout the country: a family meal at a Chinese restaurant, often followed by a group visit to a movie theater.
A Christmas Tradition -- Hold The Christmas
Christmas, like Thanksgiving, offers a bounty of festive dishes that help define the holiday cheer. According to Wikipedia, that feast centers around stuffed fowl: either pheasant, goose, duck, or turkey (didn’t we just do turkey?). Naturally, traditions vary from family to family. Holiday honey ham usurps Wikipedia’s bird fascination in many households. But there’s a long-held Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food while the rest of us tuck into the other white meat. Here’s the story of General Tso’s chicken making its way onto the tables of many Jewish families around Christmas.
The Chinese Christmas Dates Back 100 Years
For those doubting the veracity of the Chinese Jewish Christmas alliance, the custom was parodied on SNL, investigated in academic papers, and corroborated by Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. According to Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D., executive director of American Friends of Rabin Medical Center, Rabbi of Metropolitan Synagogue in New York, and author of A Kosher Christmas, the practice of Chinese food on Christmas dates back to the turn of the 19th century on the Lower East Side of New York City.
In 1899, the American Hebrew journal castigated Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants. Some 30 years later, the East Side Chamber News detailed 18 Chinese restaurants in Jewish neighborhoods. Those restaurants also happened to be located within walking distance to Ratner’s a famous kosher dairy restaurant in Manhattan.
In the Rabbi’s words, “It was a gradual transition from the traditional diet of Eastern Europe, to eating American Chinese food, to eating other pan-Asian cuisines, like Indian food. I like to say that, within a hundred years of arriving in New York, the average Jew was more familiar with sushi than gefilte fish.”
So aside from the proximity, convenience, and let’s face it, tastiness of Chinese food, why did Jewish people gravitate toward the Asian persuasion? As it turns out, Chinese food doesn’t use milk in the majority of their recipes and cleverly hides the use of pork. Now you might be thinking, pork? Isn’t the whole point of eating Chinese food to keep things Kosher? Well, just like the rest of us, Jewish people like to color outside the lines now and then.
Rabbi Plaut explains it best, “A lot of Jews back then — and even now — kept strict kosher inside the home but were more flexible with foods they ate at restaurants. Sociologist Gaye Tuchman wrote about this practice. She described [the plausible deniability of non-kosher ingredients] as safe treyf. [Treyf is the Yiddish word for non-kosher.] A lot of Jews considered the pork in Chinese food to be safe treyf, because they couldn’t see it. That made it easier to eat.”
Making Your Own Traditions
Of course, Jewish people don’t celebrate Christmas but in a country where Christmas serves as the Superbowl of holidays, Jewish people can feel left out. So, if you’re left out of a giant holiday, naturally you start to create your own traditions.
We’ll let Rabbi Plaut explain, “Honestly. The Chinese restaurant was a safe haven for American Jews who felt like outsiders on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, you become an insider. You can celebrate somebody else's birthday and yet be amongst friends and family and members of the tribe, thereby the outsider on Christmas becomes the insider.”
Tags: Chinese Food | Chinese Restaurant | Christmas | Jews
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