With the approach of Christmas Day, let us examine a hallowed Jewish-American Christmas tradition: Eating Chinese food. (Before or after a movie? There, the tradition varies.) For many of us, the two are only intertwined because Chinese cuisine is often the only option available. But in fact, this custom has a backstory that speaks to the shared immigrant experience of being outsiders in America.
The history of American Jews and Chinese restaurants dates back to the early 20th century on New York’s Lower East Side. In this growing and diverse community, Jewish and Chinese immigrants made up the two largest non-Christian groups, living in enclaves that bordered one another. Both were populations of recent arrivals, with similar integration struggles like language barriers and encounters with bigotry. And as Jews began to venture out of their own comfort zones to explore different aspects of American culture, neighboring Chinatown restaurants were welcoming places. As an added bonus, because Chinese dishes rarely contained dairy, they provided a “kosher-style” menu (nevermind the pork and shellfish).
Not all Jews were happy about this intercultural development. The first newspaper mention of Jews eating Chinese food appears to be an 1899 American Hebrew Weekly article criticizing Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, singling out Chinese food. However, Jews continued to find comfort and acceptance at Chinese restaurants, as well as some exoticism; by the 1920s, going out for chop suey became a sign of one’s cosmopolitanism, and Chinese restaurants became popular dating spots.
As upwardly-mobile Jews began leaving the Lower East Side for other boroughs, Chinese restaurants would invariably follow. And as Christmas evolved into a public holiday, and Jews found themselves with the day off, going out for nearby Chinese food — and taking the day off from cooking — was an obvious way to luxuriate. Even today, as more and more non-Chinese restaurants stay open on Christmas, the American-Jewish Chinese food tradition fiercely continues. Perhaps Chinese food on Christmas stands as a reminder that although Jews have come a long way in assimilating, few things can make us feel as foreign as being in America on Christmas Day. In that light, it’s unsurprising that we continue the tradition of entering the safe space of another outsider culture to share — and enjoy — the experience of being non-mainstream. Pass the egg rolls!