Two Jews Walk Into a Chinese Restaurant. . .

Like they would eat anywhere else on Christmas Day.

Call it age, laziness or selfishness, but when faced with preparing and cooking a holiday meal last year, full of turkeys, family and hours of cleanup, I decided that the best way to celebrate was a good old-fashioned New York Jewish Christmas.

Which meant Chinese food and a movie.

What is the connection between kreplach and kung pao? Is moo goo gai pan more Jewish than matzo balls? And isn’t wonton soup just chicken broth with dumplings?

The “tradition” is common knowledge. During her Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Justice Elena Kagan, asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina where she was on Christmas Day, replied, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Playwright David Mamet once drew a cartoon of a note from the Chinese Restaurateurs Association thanking Jewish people. “We do not completely understand your dietary customs,” it said, “but we are proud and grateful that your God insists you eat our food on Christmas.”

Yuletide calls for dim sum—little plates, delivered straight from the steamer on a rolling cart. We arrived at Ming’s Bistro in Colonialtown on Christmas Day to discover a line of prospective diners stretching down the block and around the corner, a mixture of Asian and non-Asian faces gleaming with holiday cheer. As the laden metal trolleys maneuvered past packed tables, hands were grabbing stacks of steaming covered plates. It didn’t matter if they held shrimp dumplings, chicken feet or roast pork buns, full dishes were emptied as soon as they arrived in a frenzy worthy of the Cratchits. Or the Simpsons.

About those buns. There’s a delicious rebellion attached to a visit to “the Chinese.” Sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine coined the term “safe treyf” in a paper published in Contemporary Ethnography in 1992, “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern.’’ (Treyf is a Yiddish word for non-kosher ingredients like pork and shellfish.) “Chinese cooking disguises the tabooed ingredients by cutting, chopping, and mincing them,” they wrote. The forbidden substances are hidden and, therefore, fair game.

Some scholars point to the intermingling of Eastern European and Chinese immigrants in Manhattan as the key. My grandfather came to New York from Russia in 1923. He had a clothing store in Harlem; ribs and ham hocks weren’t a viable choice, but a Chinatown feast of chop suey and fried rice was just a subway ride away. It was cheap and plentiful, and he would tell me he felt more comfortable eating amid the susurrus of Mandarin than at any deli or Italian restaurant. “Too bad they don’t make a nice sandwich,” he often said.

But the Sino-Hebraic connection is far older than that. The first Chinese synagogue was built in Kaifeng in 1163. Jewish traders in India established routes to Singapore in the early 1800s, and refugees of the 1917 Russian Revolution escaped to Hong Kong. Once there, they were introduced to two staples of Jewish life: dim sum and the game of mahjong. And who could refuse a nice
cup of tea?

This year, we might go the way of turkey and some mistletoe, or wander out for shumai and sticky rice buns. And as we know from the movie A Christmas Story, a chorus of “Deck the Halls” is a possibility. I always suspected Ralphie was Jewish.

Edit Module
Want to read the whole issue? Download and read this issue and others on Magzter.

Add your comment:
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags

Guides & Resources

Premier Realtors

Check out our 2016 searchable database of Orlando's premier realtors.

Orlando's Best Lawyers 2016

Our annual list includes hundreds of Orlando-area attorneys in dozens of areas of practice.

Orlando's Top Dentists of 2016

Our annual list featuring 224 of the area's finest dental professionals.

Guide to Private Schools 2016

Our searchable annual database will help you chart an educational course for your family.

2015 Premier Doctors

Our annual inventory of Central Florida’s Finest Doctors with details on hundreds of physicians in dozens of specialties.

Orlando's Top Chiropractors of 2015

Check out our searchable 2015 list of some of the best chiropractors in the Orlando area.

Premier Veterinarians 2015

Check out our searchable 2015 list of some of the best vets in the Orlando area.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

MoreRecent Blog Posts

Exploring Disney Springs

Downtown Disney has officially transformed into Disney Springs, a world-class dining, entertainment and shopping district.

Weekend Happenings in Orlando July 22 to 24

Find the best events in and around Orlando for the weekend.

Sharks Circling in at SeaWorld This Summer

SeaWorld's brand-new Shark Reef Realm features new exhibits and Orlando's most thrilling coaster yet.

Weekend Happenings in Orlando July 15 to 17

Find the best events in and around Orlando for the weekend.

Upscale Dining at Orlando's Theme Parks

Visitors might be surprised to find some of the best restaurants in the country are actually in and around Orlando's theme parks.
Edit Module