Jews, Christmas And Chinese Food
Jews, the Holidays and Chinese Food
By Simone Ellin
During Elena Kagan’s U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings last June, Jews around the world enjoyed a major chuckle when Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked then-nominee Kagan about her whereabouts on Christmas Day.
The query was in reference to last year’s Christmas Day bombing attempt. Kagan’s witty response (now part of the national discourse),”Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,” rang true for many of the Judge’s co-religionists.
Indeed, Christmas is a funny time for Jews. Though some may enjoy the solitude and a rare opportunity to do absolutely nothing, Christmas has always seemed kind of gloomy to me. Maybe this dates back to childhood when I had many friends who weren’t Jewish, and I was one of the few who wasn’t celebrating Christmas.
However, on Christmas, when everything is closed, streets are quiet and the world seems to stand still, it is a relief to know that one can venture out to a Chinese restaurant, be surrounded by other non-revelers (Jews) and have the sense that it is almost business as usual.
Michael Kinstlinger is a Mount Washington resident who grew up in Colorado. “There weren’t many Jews and there weren’t many Chinese restaurants,” he recalls. So it wasn’t until relocating to Baltimore that Kinstlinger became aware of the “Chinese food on Christmas” tradition.
“It started a couple of years ago,” he says. “I met some people …and while playing softball, some of us decided to get together and spend Christmas together. We would play football in the morning, go home and get cleaned up, and then meet up again for a movie and Chinese food. We’ve been meeting up for Chinese food on Christmas ever since. It’s the one day a year when no one has anything else to do, so it’s a great time to get together. And the restaurants are always so crowded! It’s like going to synagogue on the High Holidays, except you can talk.”
This year, Kinstlinger and his wife plan to expose their 5-month-old daughter to the “Chinese on Christmas” phenomenon. “We are pretty sure she already likes Chinese food. We have to expose her to the traditions early.”
Stephanie Rosenau, 26, who grew up in suburban Philadelphia and now makes her home in Baltimore, believes that Chinese food on Christmas is part of our community’s culture. “It’s a tradition,” says Rosenau, who grew up with Jewish and non-Jewish friends. “I always enjoyed Christmas since it was one day when I didn’t have to do anything. When schools were closed for Jewish holidays, my Christian friends had the day off. Finally, on Christmas, I had the day off.
Rosenau recalls that when her family was home for the holidays, they always ate at a particular Chinese restaurant. Like many others, Rosenau’s family combined Chinese dinners with movies. Nowadays, Rosenau observes the laws of kashrut. She says she is grateful that Baltimore has much to offer in the way of kosher food and restaurants.
Like Rosenau, Baltimore natives Allyson Weinstein, 31, and Molly Franz, 22, both grew up in families that observed the tradition of Chinese food on Christmas. For Franz, it was not until she started college at Boston University that she consciously adopted the tradition as her own.
“For the past three or four years,” says Franz, “I’ve really gotten into eating Chinese food on Christmas. Of course, Chinese food on Christmas isn’t really a part of Judaism, but when I go out to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas and I know that almost everyone there is Jewish, I feel we share a common bond.”
Weinstein agrees. “On Christmas, you know that the only people in the restaurant are Jewish. It’s like you know what the Jewish community is doing that night, and you want to be a part of it.”
Weinstein can remember only one year when she did not go to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas. “We had a newborn baby who wasn’t ready to go to a restaurant yet. So we had Chinese take-out with my parents and in-laws,” she recalls.
Weinstein plans to bring both her children to a restaurant this Christmas. However, she has an important piece of advice for any first-timers.
“You need to make a reservation,” she laughs.
Jews And Their Fascination With Chinese Food
Andrew Coe, author, “Chop Suey: A Cultural History of Chinese Food in the United States,” (Oxford University Press, 2009) in lickmyspoon.com . “Unlike in other eateries, the owners did not discriminate; they served white, black, and Native American alike.
Jews also noticed the many similarities between Jewish and Chinese food, including the use of onions, celery, garlic, and chicken and the lack of dairy products.”
“They still had to get over the kosher problem. Luckily, some anonymous genius invented the concept of ‘safe treyf.’ If you couldn’t see a dish’s non-kosher ingredients, you could eat it. They wouldn’t order a plate of roast pork, but soup made with pork-flavored stock and chop suey with the pork or shrimp chopped up so small you couldn’t identify it was permissible.”
Even In China
Jennifer 8 Lee, author, “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” (Twelve, reprint 2009) in 2007 blog on her website, fortunecookiechronicles.com.
There’s a photo of Jews eating Chinese food in Beijing on Christmas. The banner reads: “A Warm Welcome to the Jewish Delegation’s Participation in the First Annual Beijing Christmas Chinese food banquet!”
— Rochelle Eisenberg