25 December 2008

Christmas traditions: Chopsticks, the silver screen

As most Jewish New Yorkers know, Christmas means Chinese food and movies. Why is that? Well, about the only restaurants open on Christmas were Chinese and the only other thing to do while other New Yorkers were opening presents, caroling and eating Christmas turkeys and hams, was go to the movies.

We knew that almost everyone in our favorite restaurant and cinema were also MOTs (Members of the Tribe). And we also knew that some of the best places for Chinese cuisine were located in Jewish neighborhoods. The old joke was that when looking for a new home, a family would first check out the local school's reputation and then look for the Chinese restaurants.

It is so ingrained a tradition that when we moved to Teheran in the early 70s, the first thing we did was locate the best Chinese restaurant - it was very good! We also did this in Los Angeles and later when we moved to Southern Nevada. In both locations, we found excellent places as good as our favorite New York destination.

Doesn't quite work like that in Israel, where the day is a normal part of the week. Everything is open. And, if truth be told, the Chinese food in Israel is not what we know Chinese food should be. We are always disappointed.

While our sushi places are great, Thai is excellent, and our pan-Asian places are wonderful, Chinese isn't even on the radar. I believe that if you've never had New York Chinese, you won't miss it and might even think what's served up here is good - but for those in the know, it is a major disappointment.

Panda Express (mass-market Chinese restaurants in the US, often located in malls and supermarkets) would have lines around the block if they opened an outlet here. Their orange chicken is delicious.

I long for perfect kung pao chicken, simply and expertly prepared. I long for garlic chicken with extra water chestnuts (which are barely used here). A real egg roll. New York fried rice which seems, according to hardcore world travelers, to be the best in the world.

I have been told that the problem is that while Israel gives visas to Thai cooks and other Asian cooks, no visas are given for Chinese expert chefs. I haven't been able to track this down, but my sources - in the restaurant industry - are normally reliable.

Just in time to discuss the affinity of Jews and Chinese food is an article by Karen Goldberg Goff in The Washington Post.

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.

Syracuse University science professor (and Chinese cuisine cook) Donald Siegel says, however, that there's a "more complex affinity" at work here. He's 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.

From here, the relationship was born. Another old joke from my grandparents' time was that some people who ostensibly kept kosher had three sets of dishes (milchig-dairy, fleischig-meat and treif-not kosher - used for Chinese take-out). At least, Chinese food didn't mix meat and milk so on some level it was "safer" than other foreign cuisines.

Today, of course, in many observant US Jewish neighborhoods, there is a plethora of kosher Chinese places. I have been to some that are very good (Los Angeles in particular) and some that are awful (various East Coast suburbs).

The article mentions sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine's 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 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."

Of course, pork and shellfish are used in this cuisine, but Siegel comments that some people curved - if not bent - the rules and felt that if the forbidden ingredients were chopped into teeny tiny pieces, and if they couldn't recognize it, then it was OK to eat.

Tuchman and Levine also point out that Chinese restaurant food was considered cosmopolitan. In New York City, immigrants (and their children and grandchildren) got used to the idea that modern American Jews did this together. Thus, the tradition became part of ordinary life.



  1. My immigrant Litvak grandmother who had probably never been in a Chinese restaurant in her life used to make a delicious chicken chow mein!

  2. I spent a month in China from Sept. 23-Oct. 24, 2008 and lost 7 lbs. The food in China is not anywhere as good as the Chinese food in the US and Canada (an understatement), which has presumably taken Chinese food and perfected it. I'll take a Chinese restaurant in New York City, San Francisco, Vancouver, BC and many other places over Beijing and Shanghai any day.

  3. Anonymous9:42 PM

    I, too, am Jewish and sure do miss the
    Chinese restaruant and a movie with my family. We haven't done this tradition since myself and my three siblings flew the nest. I have a Chinese restaruant here in Nashville, Tennessee, about a five minute walk from where I live, but it is not like my hometown, New York City. Gotta get home for some Chinese and Katz's Deli and do it soon.