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.