On Christmas Eve this year, my husband and I will do what American Jews all over the country do on Christmas: eat Chinese.
There’s a simple reason why so many Jews eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas: when almost everything else is closed up tight, Chinese restaurants are open and welcoming.
But the love affair between Jews and Chinese food is deeper than that.
Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States in the mid-1800s via the West Coast, where they worked on building the transcontinental railroad. By the late 19th century, there was a thriving Chinatown in New York City, adjacent to the Lower East Side which housed the city’s largest Jewish population.
A number of reasons have been put forth about why Jews latched on to Chinese food. It had to be more than proximity, because the Lower East Side was also adjacent to Little Italy. But the most popular day for Jewish families to eat out was Sunday, and for Italian immigrants, Sunday was typically a family day when restaurants were closed.
Welcoming and inexpensive
The Chinese and the Jews were the largest non-Christian immigrant groups in New York. Chinese restaurants were open all the time and welcoming of everyone, no matter what their religion or color. And they were inexpensive.
Chinese food was familiar to Jews in some ways – the use of onions, garlic and rice, and serving family-style, with everyone sharing a number of large dishes, rather that each person eating a separate meal.
But it was also very different from the food most Eastern European Jews were used to. In the 1920s and 1930s, eating Chinese food was seen as urban and sophisticated. To the sons and daughters of Eastern European immigrants, it was a way to demonstrate their American identity.
One interesting theory is that Chinese food was “safe treyf” – treyf meaning food that was forbidden by the Jewish dietary laws. If pork was in wontons (which looked very much like Jewish kreplach) or in tiny pieces in chop suey, it didn’t seem as bad as chowing down on a ham sandwich. And the Chinese typically don’t cook with dairy products, so no one had to worry about mixing milk and meat.
A couple of scholars, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine even wrote a paper on the topic for the journal Contemporary Ethnography (1992: Vol 22 No 3. pp. 382-407). The article also appears in The Taste of American Place: A Reader on Regional and Ethnic Foods edited by Barbara G. Shortridge & James R. Shortridge (Roman & Littlefield, 1997). And you can read it online here.
For many Jews, Chinese food was the first non-kosher food they ate. It’s not uncommon for Jews who keep a kosher home to eat non-kosher food when they are away. I’ve even known a few who bring Chinese takeout home – but eat it only on paper plates so as not to sully their kosher kitchen dishes.
When I was growing up in Philadelphia, if my family “ate out” it was most often at the Jade Palace, our local Cantonese restaurant. My family didn’t keep kosher, and I grew up loving wonton soup, shrimp in lobster sauce, and other Chinese delicacies (but not barbecued spareribs: “All bone, no meat,” my mother would sniff.)
My eating habits may have changed, but my love of Chinese food has not diminished. Luckily, it’s usually easy to get vegetarian dishes at a Chinese restaurant.
Some major metropolitan areas with large Jewish populations even have kosher Chinese restaurants. The first of these was Bernstein’s-on-Essex-Street, at 135 Essex Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
A pioneer in kosher Chinese food
Bernstein’s, which started as a deli and catering hall, has a special place in my heart because it’s where my parents were married on March 25, 1945. It was then known by its original name, Schmulka Bernstein’s. In 1959, owner Sol Bernstein began serving Chinese food. He substituted beef and veal for pork and avoided dishes that used shellfish.
My husband and I were in New York for a conference in the mid-1970s and trekked down to Bernstein’s-on-Essex-Street. The waiters wore black Chinese skullcaps with red tassels, and even the Chinese ones spoke a decent Yiddish. The food wasn’t as good as what I remembered from the Jade Palace, but for us it was a real treat to be able to eat meat at a Chinese restaurant.
Unfortunately, the Bernstein family sold the restaurant in 1989 and it closed a year later.
Jennifer 8. Lee, a Chinese-American woman who wrote a book about Chinese food called The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, has what may be the final word on why Jews love Chinese food.
“I sought out the Chinese Jews in Kaifeng, on the Silk Road, for more profound insight (these are like not like European Jews who escaped to Shanghai, they look like me but are Chosen like the Jews),” she says. “When I asked the sole Jewish Chinese woman there ‘Why do American Jews like Chinese food?’ She answered me with koan-like simplicity: ‘It tastes good.’”
Here is a recipe for eggrolls that I clipped many, many years ago from the Jewish Exponent newspaper in Philadelphia. It includes the eggroll wrappers, which I confess I have never made since it’s so easy these days to buy eggroll skins in grocery stores.
You can easily make this dish vegetarian by omitting the chicken and adding an extra cup of vegetables.