This time of year, let’s be honest: The most Jewish-American tradition isn’t even celebrating those eight crazy candle-and latke-filled nights. It’s hitting the local Chinese restaurant on Christmas, of course.
Many American Jews grow up eating Chinese food every Christmas night. Jews are at the local Chinese place noshing on moo shu pork with a side of spare ribs. Sure, Chinese food is full of pork and shellfish—both of which are considered traif, or non-Kosher under traditional Jewish dietary guidelines—but among the less strict, eating Chinese is a de facto ritual.
Hell, the tradition-cum-trope even famously wormed its way into the halls of power a few years back. In what is now an exchange widely known throughout the polito-sphere, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Justice Elena Kagan how she had spent the previous Christmas during her 2010 confirmation hearing, and Kagan shrewdly responded to uproarious laughter, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
All of this has us wondering: What the hell is up with Jews and Chinese food, especially on Christmas? We reached out to a number of food experts and chefs on both sides of the cultural divide—Chinese and Jewish—to learn why so many members of the tribe seem to love wontons as much as they do matzoh balls.
Theories abound. For starters, there’s this: Back in the day, the only place open for non-Christians to dine on Christmas was the local Chinese restaurant, but that excuse doesn’t explain the growing popularity of the trend today, given that there are now plenty of other restaurants, from Indian to Thai, open on Jesus’s bday. Indeed, the trend of Jews eating Chinese on Christmas seems to be growing—especially in New York City—where several restaurateurs told me that Christmas is, by far, their busiest day (and eve) of the year, thanks largely to Jewish customers.
Could the origins of the Jewish love of Chinese food be as simple as geography? The ancestral entry point into the US for most Jews was New York City’s Lower East Side, where the LES abuts Chinatown. Ergo, this theory goes, proximity led to the Jewish love of Chinese food.
Joan Nathan, a well-known Jewish food culinary expert and award-winning cookbook writer, isn’t buying it. She says the popularity of Chinese food among Jews took off when they moved out of New York City and into local suburbs in the 1950s and 60s; it was the food of growing affluence and assimilation. Eating Chinese food was also a comfortable way to dine, with Lazy Susans on each table and a low-key atmosphere: “Families that felt they wanted to be American, but weren’t highfalutin, loved it. You didn’t have to have great manners—you could share. And Jews have always like sharing food.”
Jayne Cohen, an author and Jewish food historian, agrees. She told me, “I don’t think eating Chinese food on Christmas became a tradition until Jews moved out of their enclosed, tight-knit communities and into mixed areas with Christian neighbors.”
Ed Schoenfeld, who currently runs Red Farm and Decoy in New York, may understand this tradition better than anybody. After all, he’s a Brooklyn Jew who has been in the Chinese-food business for the better part of half a century. He says eating Chinese food became a way for assimilating Jews to embrace the exotic without going too far afield. “If you came from an educated Jewish family in Brooklyn or Queens or Manhattan, Chinese food was an easy-to-go-to, exotic food. It had lost its stigma in the early part of the 20th century and had become affordable. My parents wouldn’t go to Le Pavillion or fancy French restaurants. If they wanted to go out to a restaurant, they’d go out to a Chinese restaurant.”
Joan Nathan says the exoticism of Chinese food added to its appeal, but also believes the Jewish love of Chinese food may be attributable to the outsider status of both communities in a largely white, Christian America: “Maybe it was the familiar feeling of otherness; in other words, they were not as comfortable as the ‘Americans’ were, and so they become comfortable with each other.”
Then there’s the nature of Americanized Chinese food itself: Proteins are chopped small and mixed with veggies and a heavy sauce, thereby disguising forbidden pork and shellfish, effectively hiding them in plain sight. Jayne Cohen says Chinese food is “the perfect gateway to the traif-y bits of pork and shellfish hidden in kreplach-like wontons, and eventually, even the blatantly unkosher world of spareribs.”
Also, there tends to be no dairy in Chinese food, allowing observant Jews to avoid dietary prohibitions on combinations of milk and meat. In short, eating Chinese food is an easy way to cheat on dietary restrictions without having your transgression scream in your face.