A friend just sent us a message inviting us over for Chinese food on December 25th. A catering company sent us a message this week about their Chinese specials. And memes about how grateful Jews are to our Asian brothers on Christmas seem to be everywhere I turn online.
I grew up in a religious community in a suburb of Chicago, and I never heard of this Christmas-Chinese food connection until a few years ago. Most Jews I know never did either. So how did this become everyone’s cartoon picture of how Jews celebrate the most non-Jewish day of the year?
I mean, I get the joke. Jews want to enjoy their day off and go out for dinner on December 25, but every restaurant in town is closed except for those of the other minority that isn’t celebrating the holiday. So Moishe’le, fold up your talis. we’re going to Chinatown!
But there’s at least one major problem here. For us religious Jews who keep kosher, well, Christmas, Shmismas. Jerusalem Pizza, Kosher Delight, and Cohen’s Deli are just as open as Yossi Peking or Mi Tzu Yan (sound it out if you know Hebrew), and there’s nothing more season-appropriate about an egg roll than a knish or a falafel ball. The religious Jews I grew up with would spend Christmas watching movies, playing football, and eating pizza.
(Actually, when I studied at Yeshiva University, there was a custom that there were always finals on December 25. Since the Tishrei high holidays occupied a few weeks of the fall semester, we only finished our tests in the first week of January, two weeks after other schools. A lucky few might have been spared a test on the morning of January 1, but everyone had a Talmud final on Christmas.)
But that all being said, historians find a strong Jewish connection to Chinese food on Christmas — in New York. If you Google “Why do Jews eat Chinese on Christmas,” or anything like that, you’ll actually find a short history of the Jewish immigrant experience in America. You’ll learn about the discrimination Jews faced upon reaching the “New World” for not talking like “regular Americans,” and how tempting it was for Jews on the Lower East Side to slip over to their fellow immigrants in Chinatown right next door. Chinese restaurants offered a whole new eating experience to a people raised on gefilte fish and herring, and something even more valuable: acceptance by the outside world. According to the historians, Chinese restaurants became something of a Jewish social club for an immigrant population that was redefining itself, and nothing felt as welcoming for an ostracized people as a good shrimp egg roll on Christmas. So, if your Jewish lineage runs through New York at some point in the last hundred years (and let’s face it, most of ours does), well, I guess there is some kind of historical connection, even if most of us never took part in it.
But this Tuesday, when I eat my kosher Chinese food with friends on December 25 in Jerusalem, Israel, it will be only for the kitsch.