chinese food

"Happy Jewish Christmas" by churl is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

 

For Christmas, Lauren Glick and her family usually go to Nee House Chinese Cuisine on Tatum and Thunderbird.

“It’s just filled with Jews,” she said. “I’ve seen rabbis there, cantors — I bump into friends.”

As John Lee, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, said, “Everybody knows Jews dine in Chinese restaurants on Christmas.”

For the past few years, Glick and her family have had to get there early because it gets “really packed.” They either go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.

“We’ll order extra on Christmas Eve, so we’ll have leftovers on Christmas Day. There’s not a lot of restaurants open,” she said.

Glick grew up eating Chinese food on Christmas with her family in Gardena, California. Her husband grew up doing the same with his family in Detroit. It’s a tradition they’ve passed on to their children — and now their four grandchildren.

“The whole family usually gets together. For us, it’s a nice family holiday,” she said.

There is a longstanding theory that Jewish people like Chinese food because Chinese restaurants were one of the few places open on Christmas. But Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut of the Metropolitan Synagogue of New York, author of “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish,” is eager to set the record straight.

“Is that how the affinity began with Chinese food? Absolutely not,” he said. The affinity Jews have for eating Chinese food likely started with casual dining at Chinese restaurants during the week and then on Sundays. “Eating Chinese food on Christmas was probably the last development.”

The phenomenon originated instead in New York City’s Lower East Side. Plaut said the first mention of Jews eating Chinese food was in an 1899 American Hebrew article, which criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants and singled out Jews who flock to Chinese restaurants. In 1928, an article from the Der Tog newspaper written primarily in Yiddish ran a piece titled, “Down with gefilte fish, up with chop suey.”

Ted Merwin, author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli,” said at the turn of the 20th century, Jews and Chinese people lived sort of “cheek by jowl with each other” along with many other ethnic and immigrant groups. But, Plaut added, many restaurants run by other immigrant communities had Christian iconography, such as pictures of venerated saints, that could be a turnoff to Jewish customers.

Jennifer 8. Lee, author of “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” added that Chinese restaurant owners also had a more welcoming attitude toward Jewish patrons than others.

“At a time when a lot of Jews were very sensitive about how American they were, Chinese restaurants never looked down on Jews,” Lee said. “So those restaurants were comfortable and welcoming in different ways.”

Plaut said Chinese restaurants also didn’t mix meat and dairy, which was a significant plus for the restaurant-goer who was looking to keep somewhat kosher, even though many dishes include pork and shellfish.

Lee said the rules were sometimes waived inside Chinese restaurants. “It didn’t look like pork, it didn’t look like ham, it didn’t look like bacon, so like the little bits of meat inside an egg roll, or even, oddly, pork spare ribs, were kind of exempt from this rule,” she said. “I still have Jewish friends who are my generation, where the families don’t eat pork except in Chinese restaurants.”

Plaut largely agreed, explaining that pork would often be hidden in things like wontons.

“They considered Chinese food safe treyf,” Plaut said. “It was something they enjoyed, it wasn’t an overt violation of dietary and kosher laws, and so you could eat there, and still enjoy it with a smile on your face ... without feeling like you were really violating Jewish tradition.”

For Bari Brown, eating Chinese food on Christmas is like eating brisket on Rosh Hashanah. “That’s what you do,” she said, noting it was what her mother did.

She’s passed on the tradition to her non-Jewish husband and in-laws, who call the activity “Jewish Christmas.”

“They thought it was a fun tradition,” Brown said, and have joined in for the past couple of years.

Brown and her family will likely order take-out from Mandarin House in Tempe this year.

“I like Christmas,” she said. “Being Jewish, it’s not ‘Oh, the birth of Christ, we need to celebrate his birthday,’ it’s more ‘Oooh tradition.’”

Brown used to go to the movies, another well-worn Jewish activity on Christmas, but that part of the tradition has been on hold with young kids.

Cynthia Savell looks forward to Christmas, especially after Thanksgiving. “I can’t tolerate turkey,” she said.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, she would always go to the same one or two neighborhood Chinese restaurants with her parents and brother. She’s continued to eat Chinese food on Christmas ever since. “It never dawned on me to not do it,” she said.

This year, she will be ordering take-out and eating with her son and daughter-in-law.

“Everybody joins me for Chinese food on Christmas Day,” she said.

She forgot the name of the Chinese restaurant she wants to try this year, but she’s been told it’s the “best Chinese food in Arizona.” She said coming from New York means the bar is high. “I’m used to New York Chinese food; that’s what I want to go home and have but it’s not going to happen. It’s an expensive ride. So we’re going to try someplace new this year.”

Ross Wolman, cantor at Temple Chai, also takes his Chinese food seriously. He and his family have tried “all the places in North Phoenix around where we live, near Paradise Valley Mall,” and discovered their current favorite spot through some friends: Chou’s Kitchen in Tempe.

“It’s like a regular Chinese restaurant, but I think it’s just very authentic and very well done,” he said. “We won’t have a Christmas without some serious Chinese food.”

Temple Chai congregants gather on Christmas Eve for the annual tradition of making peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches to be donated to St. Vincent de Paul’s downtown kitchen. Many in the group go for Chinese food after.

“I go table to table and check in with people,” Wolman said. “All we’re talking about is, ‘We’re going to go to Flo’s,’ or ‘No, No no, we’re going to go to Jade Palace,’ or, ‘No, no no, you got to go to Iron Chef.’”

Growing up in central Pennsylvania, seeing Christmas decorations or lights often made Wolman feel excluded.

“After having worked so much in the larger community and interfaith work, I appreciate that it is a holiday of light and love,” he said. “People have so much joy. And I try not to yuck someone else’s yum.”

Gary Ong, president of the Chinese Restaurant Association of Phoenix, said he likes that the Jewish and Chinese communities spend Christmas together..

“We have a lot of Jewish family friends and customers, and we don’t look at them as Jewish or non-Jewish, they’re just customers,” he said. “And many of our customers come during holiday season and regular time as well, and become friends.” JN

Additional reporting by Jesse Berman of Jewish Times, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.