On Christmas Day, we’ll eat Chinese/Walk empty streets until we freeze/Once a year the city’s ours alone/Anyone you see must be a Jew/Why not say “Hi, I’m a Jew too”?
— Rob Tannenbaum, “It’s Good to Be a Jew at Christmas”
Tonight and tomorrow, while countless millions of revelers are singing carols, attending midnight Mass, opening presents and kissing under mistletoe, a much smaller group will be celebrating its own way - with fortune cookies and kung pao chicken.
Even though Christmas falls midway through the Jewish holiday Hanukkah this year, chopsticks are, for some, as much a part of the day as a menorah.
Yes, the old snark - usually coming straight from your Jewish friends - goes that Christmas for Jews involves Chinese food and a movie. Why? Because that’s all that’s open, of course.
If one looks closely, however, there is a much more complex affinity between the two cultures, says Donald Siegel, a science professor at Syracuse University. Mr. Siegel, whose longtime hobby is cooking Chinese food, is the author of “From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair With Chinese Food.”
Mr. Siegel, fresh from cooking a kosher Chinese dinner for 150 at his synagogue near Syracuse, says back in the early 1900s, when a huge influx of Jewish and Chinese immigrants came to Lower Manhattan, the Jews felt safe and free from anti-Semitism at Chinese restaurants.
“If they ate at a Chinese restaurant, it meant they were going to try new things,” he says.
Thus, a longtime affinity was born. They could get deli food at home - vegetables and meat chopped up in a wok - that was exotic, but inexpensive. Also, Chinese food did not mix milk and meat, making it at least partially kosher for observant Jews.
Sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine examined the relationship in a 1992 paper, “Safe Treyf : New York Jews and Chinese Food.”
“Over the years, New York Jews have found in Chinese restaurant food a flexible open symbol, a kind of blank screen on which they have projected a series of themes relating to their identity as modern Jews and as New Yorkers,” the authors wrote. “These themes were not inherent in the food itself, nor did they arise from Chinese Americans’ view of their own cuisine.
“Chinese food is unkosher and therefore non-Jewish,” Ms. Tuchman and Mr. Levine wrote. “But because of the specific ways Chinese food is prepared and served, immigrant Jews and their children found Chinese food to be more attractive and less threatening than other non-Jewish or food. Chinese food was what we term ‘.’ Chinese restaurant food used some ingredients that were familiar to Eastern European Jews. Chinese cuisine also does not mix milk and meat; indeed it doesn’t use dairy products at all.”
Mr. Siegel agrees. Even though Chinese food often uses non-kosher ingredients such as pork and shellfish, many observant Jews bent the rules when it came to eating Chinese. Lobster and shrimp were OK, they reasoned, if they were chopped into teeny, unrecognizable pieces.
“If you couldn’t ID it, then it was OK to eat it,” Mr. Siegel says.
The authors of “Safe Treyf” make two more points: “Jews construed Chinese restaurant food as cosmopolitan. In New York City, immigrant Jews, and especially their children and grandchildren, regarded Chinese food as sophisticated and urbane. By the second and third generation, Jews identified eating this kind of non-Jewish food - Chinese restaurant food - as something that modern American Jews, and especially New York Jews, did together. ‘Eating Chinese’ became a New York Jewish custom, a part of daily life and self-identity for millions of New York Jews.”
From there, the custom spread nationwide. “Christmas” dinner from Silver Spring to San Diego could include fried rice and hot and sour soup.
In today’s widely assimilated America, however, home to countless ethnic restaurants likely to be open on Christmas, things are changing.
Rob Tannenbaum, lead of the humor/music group Good for the Jews, points out that Christmas Eve has become a big social night for Jews. Young Washington singles will be at the annual Matzo Ball (this year at Ultrabar, 911 F St. NW) and any number of official and unofficial Jewish social events.
“In 2000, I started a band to play modern, funny Jewish rock music, and our first show was on Christmas Eve at the Knitting Factory in New York,” says Mr. Tannenbaum, who performed at the Birchmere in Alexandria on Sunday.
“We had to convince them to stay open that night, and the show sold out. Eight years ago, my band was just about the only Jewish act performing and touring around the Hanukkah and Christmas seasons. Now there’s immense competition for live events during that week,” he says. “If you’re a Jew and you spend Christmas Eve sitting at home and watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ yet again - you know how it ends!
“Because with a lot of help from me, Christmas Eve has become the best night of the year for Jews,” says Mr. Tannenbaum, 32. “We have reclaimed it as our own special night to go out. Plus, the traffic’s never very bad.”