Last year I wrote an article explaining why Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas.
The Hebrew year is 5771 and the Chinese year is 4707. That must mean, the joke goes, that against all odds the Jews went without Chinese food for 1,064 years. In fact, Jewish love for Chinese food is neither hallucinated nor arbitrary. It is very real and very determined, and it originates roughly a century ago, in a place about four miles away from Mile End: the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The predominant groups in the area were Eastern European Jews, Italians, and Chinese. According to Matthew Goodman, author of Jewish Food: The World at Table, Italian cuisine and especially Italian restaurants, with their Christian iconography, held little appeal for Jews. But the Chinese restaurants had no Virgin Marys. And they prepared their food in the Cantonese culinary style, which utilized a sweet-and-sour flavor profile, overcooked vegetables, and heaps of garlic and onions. Sound familiar?
Additionally, argued Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine in a 1992 academic paper titled “Safe Treyf,” Chinese food featured the sort of unkosher dishes you could take home to your mother, or at least eat in front of her. For one thing, there is no mixing of dairy and meat, for the simple reason that there is no dairy. (Think about it!) Of course, there is trayf aplenty, chiefly pork and shellfish. But it is always either chopped and minced and served in the middle of innocuous vegetables all covered in a common sauce, or it is wrapped up in wontons and egg rolls—where you can’t see it. Goodman notes that the purveyors of Chinese restaurants eventually picked up on this: “They would advertise wonton soup as chicken soup with kreplach,” he told me.
(New Yorkers: Mile End is serving its “Traditional Jewish Christmas” again this year.)
What will you be eating this Christmas?
Related: Jewish Christmas [Tablet Magazine]
Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.