For Jews, trying to score a table at a well-regarded Chinese restaurant on Christmas can be just as competitive as booking a Friday night reservation at the hottest kitchen in town. Your best bet, according to Shun Lee West general manager Andy Ho, is to call three weeks in advance. It’s safe to say this is a tradition every Jew knows well: not turkey carvings and yuletide cheer next to the fireplace, but General Tso’s chicken and fortune cookies against a backdrop of tropical fish tanks and pink upholstered booths.
What was once considered an inside joke amongst Jews has embedded itself in the broader American consciousness. Broadcasted live on national television, the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagen blew the lid off of this long-held, perplexing ritual. Responding to Senator Lindsey Graham’s question about where she was on Christmas Day (a round-about way of invoking the Christmas Day bomber in Detroit), Kagen quipped, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” The court erupted in laughter, and it immediately became a defining moment of Kagen’s legacy; but additionally, it gave further credence to the Chinese-Jewish myth. In response, Chinese restaurants hung signs outside their doors, thanking Kagen and Jewish patronage.
The numbers don’t lie, either. According to a Washington Post article, Google search results for “Chinese food” yield significant spikes around Christmastime. And as the phenomenon has dug its heels into mainstream culture, serious chefs have found ways to commemorate the unusual connection. Eli Sussman of Mile End Deli offers a special Christmas menu featuring corned beef and kraut wontons and smoked meat dan dan noodles; Mission Chinese Food and Russ & Daughters will also team up to mark the occasion.
But while non-Jewish Americans are cognizant of the Sino-Jewish connection, and analytics confirm our deep-rooted practices, a fundamental question remains: Why, out of all foods, did Jews pick Chinese?
Attempts to locate the meaning behind cultural practices can quickly get slippery—especially in the context of Judaism, where the art of debate and argumentative discourse set the tone for our religion. We wrestle with ancient instructions laid out in the Torah; we derive truth through a series of counterpoints called Talmudic logic; hell, we even pound our fists on the table when we declare our favorite babka. So how could we possibly come to a consensus about this?
In the spirit of unresolved matters that dominate Jewish thinking, we enlisted several historians, rabbis, chefs, and other Jewish and Chinese community members—including Michael Twitty, Jennifer 8 Lee, and Ed Schoenfeld—to offer their take on the intertwined history between these two cultures. The back-and-forth may be endless, but in the end, that’s what makes us whole.
Food writer and culinary historian; founder of Afroculinaria
To put matters in context, the Jewish and Chinese communities at the turn of the 20th century enjoyed, for the most part, a distant and measured mutual respect. They were both exotic, insular outsiders, and more importantly they weren’t fighting over the same geographic spaces or economic territory. The Chinese restaurant was open to Jewish patrons on a Christian holiday that was built into the national civic religion. How do you affirm your Americanness when the “American” thing to do is celebrate Christmas? You create your own “Christmas.” So these two essentially Silk Road-borne cultures—Jews and Chinese—known for their diasporas, learning, and unique sense of ethnic identity, join forces and co-create an American cultural and culinary space where they are not persecuted as exotics. Hot soup and tea, noodles, kreplach masquerading as wontons, and copious piles of savory food that thriftily eke every drop of flavor from leftovers are things that Jewish immigrants and their children could understand. Chinese food on Christmas became the un-ham. A few years ago, my high school students won a competition to figure out a way to engage young adults into living active Jewish lives. One of the applications they were trying to design was called “Where to get Chinese Food on Christmas”; what’s better, it was designed by a young man whose father was Chinese and whose mother was Ashkenazi Jewish.
Rabbi at UJA-Federation of New York
My friends and I have speculated about this before. Christmas eve was referred to negatively by Jewish scholars as Nittel Nacht. Especially in Eastern Europe, people would roam the streets drunk and partake in the festivities. And because they’d often get rowdy, it was considered dangerous for Jews to be walking around. A tradition formed—stemming from the fear of being harassed—to not study in the yeshiva on the eve of Christmas and New Years. In Israel, this wouldn’t have been a problem, but it’s something that still remains as a vestige; Orthodox Jews don’t study that day. It may be the only thing that unites all Jews across the world. In Eastern Europe Hassidic tradition, people celebrated the birthday of other rebbes (spiritual leaders) within the Jewish community, not only their own. But in my opinion, Jesus is not the son of god, but the rebbe of the Christians. So why not wish him a happy birthday, too?
Senior editor at Tablet Magazine
Like a lot of Jewish traditions, most Jews have no idea—or, more likely, completely disagree—on where the custom of eating Chinese food on Christmas comes from. A lot of people would probably say it’s because Chinese restaurants are traditionally some of the only places open on Christmas, which is certainly true. But there’s also a long history of Jews in this country embracing Chinese food, a fellow immigrant cuisine that passed as ‘kosher enough’ for most Jews back in the day—since the pork and shellfish present in almost every dish is diced so small, and then fried or sauced so completely, that it’s almost like it’s not even there at all. The Chinese food on Christmas Day routine has evolved into a fun, almost rebellious assertion of Jewishness. Plus, it’s delicious, and it’s the one day of the year there isn’t a crazy line to get into Joe’s Shanghai.
GM at Shun Lee West
Every year it’s the same story, but no one knows why. On Christmas day, we book 1,300 reservations. We’ve been open for 30 years every single day (except Thanksgiving), so it could have something to do with that. As a first-generation Chinese immigrant, you usually found your way into the restaurant industry, and it was normal to work all the time. But now my kids celebrate Christmas.
I think that the connection of American Jews and their love for Chinese food is actually part of the bigger picture of the American melting-pot story. My family tale, with my grandparents’ generation coming here at the end of the 19th-century from Eastern Europe, is extremely typical. Upon arrival, they gravitated towards fellow immigrants they could relate to as a way of establishing themselves. Over the years, as their children were educated and both generations became more assimilated in their new life, they ventured out to understand and experience the large variety of cultures that had put down roots in the U.S. As a child, going to a fancy French restaurant seemed to be too big a leap—a rarefied experience that was reserved for the monied upper crust. Chinese restaurants, on the other hand, had opened in everyone’s neighborhood, and if you were open to trying something different, they were fun, easy, and enjoyable experiences. Plus, in many Jewish families, younger generations were decidedly less observant and weren’t as strict about keeping Kosher; they were interested in trying things like shrimp and lobster, and especially the forbidden fruit: pork. You would never eat pork or shellfish at home, but if you went to the Chinese restaurant and no one was looking, you could always sneak some. Decades ago, when I first started in the Chinese restaurant industry, Christmas was a busy day, but not what it has evolved into: the absolute busiest day of the year.
Jennifer 8 Lee
Journalist and author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles
Jews and Chinese are the largest non-Christian immigrant groups in America. Chinese food doesn’t use dairy, and that was key at a time when more Jews kept kosher. Ultimately, the Jewish-American experience today is very different from what it was a century ago. Jewish people could go into Chinese restaurants and feel safe (from a Chinese perspective, they were still considered European). And during the 1920s, Chinese food was exotic and cosmopolitan, so the way to impress a girl was to go grab some chop suey.
[Note: Lee is the producer for a new documentary called The Search For General Tso. Advanced screenings will be held at the JCC in Manhattan on, yes, Christmas Day.]
Editor-in-chief at The Jewish Journal
Everyone loves Chinese food, and Jews are a small but very vocal and high-profile subset of everyone. And as writers, critics, pundits, entertainers, and analysts, we tend to broadcast what we love. I don’t know that we love it more than anyone else—there aren’t enough Jews to keep all those Chinese restaurants alive—but we make sure everyone knows about it. Beyond that obvious reason, two others come to mind: For years, if you wanted to eat at home, but didn’t want to cook, Chinese food was your only option. It was cheap, good (the Chinese obsession with food makes Jews look like Mormons), and suitable for crowds; that is, families who like to taste what’s on everyone else’s plate. Chinese food dovetailed seamlessly, in the years before Seamless, with Jewish family life. I’ve had traditional Christmas dinners in the midst of warm Christian families, and I’ve had numerous Chinese meals on Christmas day. But for me, Chinese is the real taste of Christmas.
Executive chef at Mile End Deli in Manhattan and Brooklyn
At Mile End, we’re not trying to replicate an authentic experience of going to a Chinese restaurant. But I do think we’ve established a strong tradition here in New York, and I like the idea of people choosing the restaurant as a place to enjoy their Christmas Day; it makes a holiday I don’t celebrate suddenly feel special.
In loving memory of Barbara “Nana” Grossman