Here’s a phenomenon I was unaware of—Jewish people’s affinity for eating out at Chinese restaurants, particularly on Christmas. Apparently the love affair began during the late 19th century on the streets of New York’s lower Manhattan where both Cantonese Chinese and Eastern European Jews were mass migrating. Prevalent racism discouraged most Jews from intermingling with their Italian and German neighbors, including patronizing these groups’ eateries. However, the Chinese, who made up a small population in Manhattan at the time, made it a point to welcome people of all backgrounds into their restaurants.
Not only did the Jews feel safe in Chinese restaurants, but also the fare was cheap and, more importantly, provided “safe treyf.” Although “treyf” means non-kosher food, many immigrants felt slightly rebellious against the traditional Jewish orthodoxies they had left behind in Eastern Europe. Moreover, Chinese cooking disguised taboo ingredients such as pork and seafood by mincing them up into unrecognizable forms. Egg rolls, for example, became wildly popular among the Jewish community because the non-kosher meat was so ground up and hidden that they could pretend these ingredients weren’t actually present in the dish.
Another attraction of eating in Chinese restaurants for the Jews was the outing’s cosmopolitan air. Chinese food was considered exotic and urban, which was an image that also bucked the perception of provincial or parochial Eastern European Jews.
As time wore on and generations passed by, the habit of eating out at Chinese restaurants became an integral component of American Jewish culture. It helped that the Chinese were not Christians, which further created a bond between the two groups and helped solidify the Jewish tradition of eating out at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. What else were they supposed to do on this holiday that they didn’t celebrate? Practically all businesses would close except for Chinese restaurants, hence the joke: “What do Jews do on Christmas? They eat Chinese and go to the movies.” And then there’s Nonna Gorilovskaya of Moment Jewish magazine who came up with this satirical rhyme:
Twas the night before Christmas and there was hardly a sound,
As Jews jumped in their cars and drove to Chinatown.
Their orders were given to waiters with care,
In hopes that wonton soup soon would be there.
The children finished their noodles and nestled in their beds,
While visions of fortune cookies danced in their heads.
Now Moment takes an inquiring look,
At how this love affair with Chinese food took.
And with that, I send everyone season’s greetings and happy Chinese eatings, wherever you’re from and whatever your background.