When I announced the title of this sermon, “Why do Jews eat Chinese Food on Christmas?” it was greeted with laughter and good natured banter. After all, where else would Jews eat since they are the only restaurants open on Christmas? Once that was true, but no more. There are many restaurants open on Christmas Eve and Christmas these days. There are a host of Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, and other restaurants from which to choose, whose owners are not Christian and who take advantage of the lack of competition on this day when most Americans have some leisure time. There are some more serious reasons why Jews have made it a custom to go to Chinese restaurants on the Christian holiday. This is at least a century old American Jewish tradition which we honor tonight by serving egg rolls at our Oneg Shabbat. Let me explain how it started.
The decade of the 1880’s saw over a million and a half Jews immigrating to the United States. The most popular port of arrival was New York, followed by Baltimore and Boston. Even Galveston, Texas, received some Eastern European Jewish immigrants. By that time, Chinese immigrants had been in this country for decades, coming here to work on the railroads and in the mines. Many Chinese moved to the cities, creating “Chinatowns” that often abutted Jewish neighborhoods. Jews on the Lower East Side of New York found Chinese restaurants, often called “Chop Suey joints,” easily available and inexpensive. “The first mention of the phenomenon of Jews eating in Chinese restaurants was in 1899 when the American Hebrew weekly journal criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out Jews who flocked to Chinese restaurants. A few years later, in 1903, the Yiddish language daily, The Forward, coined the Yiddish word “oysessen” –eating out- to describe the growing custom of Jews eating outside their homes.” In 1936, twelve years after large scale immigration ceased, a Lower East Side publication noted that eighteen Chinese “tea gardens” and restaurants had opened within walking distance of the well known Ratner’s dairy restaurant on Delancey Street.
By the mid-thirties, a generation of American born Jews was flexing its muscles. Wanting to be Americans first and foremost, they rejected many of their parent’s ritual and dietary restrictions. Greater American culture beckoned, and eating Chinese food indicated their acculturation to that new society. Many Jews who observed the dietary laws in their homes were more lax outside their homes and indulged in Chinese food. The question is “why?”
There are several explanations, all of which resonant with us today. The Chinese food of the time, Chow Mein and Chop Suey, contained an amalgam of ingredients with which Jews were familiar, such as onions, garlic, celery, and other vegetables. Even pork and shrimp were often disguised in the heavily chopped concoctions served to Jewish diners. Pork, wrapped and hidden in a wonton, reminded Jews of their mother’s kreplach, so how bad could it be? Milk was not served in Chinese restaurants so Jews, who had no problem eating shrimp in lobster sauce, would not have to be confronted with the prohibition of eating milk with meat. Chinese food served as the transition cuisine from a kosher to non-kosher diet.
Chinese food was a relative bargain. In the thirties, one could have a full meal in a Chinese restaurant for about 30 cents. During the Depression, it was often the only affordable restaurant in the neighborhood.
Chinese were not Christian and did not display Christian symbols in their restaurants, making Jews feel more comfortable, unlike, for example, what one observed in Italian restaurants. The Chinese also had no history of anti-Semitism. They knew very little about Jews and thought the Yiddish inflected English of the immigrants to be standard American English, since it was often better than their own. To the Chinese, Jews were synonymous with real Americans.
Lastly, eating Chinese marked a certain independence from family traditions. It indicated a worldliness and sophistication that the older generation lacked. Having Friday night dinner in a Chinese restaurant showed that the Jewish patrons had successfully left their ghetto and assimilated to American life.
By the sixties, with mass suburbanization and the fleeing of the old neighborhoods, Jews, like other Americans, were exposed to a plethora of new cuisines. Our palates became more sophisticated and we rarely frequented the old “Chop Suey joints.” We became accustomed to various types of Chinese cooking, from Szechuan to Hunan to Mandarin. We became more familiar with sushi than with gefilte fish. Such, dear friends, is the way of the world. We can no longer equate Judaism and Jewish life with a particular cuisine. Eating bagels and lox on Sundays while reading the New York Times does not make one Jewish. It takes more than food to establish a strong Jewish identity. Eating Chinese on Christmas is something that still helps preserve group bonds by encouraging socialization and bonding of several generations of family members who sit together at the round table. While this does not suffice to make the next generation Jewish, it reinforces cultural identity and allows us to have a fine and filling meal together.
So enjoy your Chinese food on Christmas Day. I may even see you there.
Amen and Shabbat shalom