December 21, 2011
The custom of Jewish families dining out at Chinese restaurants, especially on Christmas Day, has long been a joking matter. “According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5749,” one quip goes. “According to the Chinese calendar, the year is 4687. That means for 1,062 years, the Jews went without Chinese food.” Even Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan made light of the tradition during her Senate Judiciary Committee hearings. Granted, Chinese restaurants are typically among the few businesses open on December 25th, but it turns out that there are historical and sociological reasons why these two cultures have paired so well.
In a 1992 study, sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine focused their attentions on New York City, where there are substantial Jewish and Chinese immigrant populations. No matter how different the cultures may be, they both enjoy similar foods: lots of chicken dishes, tea and slightly overcooked vegetables. For Jewish newcomers, Chinese cooking offered a new twist on familiar tastes. Then there’s the matter of how food is handled, a matter of great importance to observant Jews. Chinese food can be prepared so that it abides by kosher law, and it avoids the taboo mixing of meat and milk, a combination commonly found in other ethnic cuisines. In one of their more tongue-in-cheek arguments, Tuchman and Levine wrote that because forbidden foods like pork and shellfish are chopped and minced beyond recognition in egg rolls and other dishes, less-observant Jews can take an “ignorance is bliss” philosophy and pretend those things aren’t even in the dish.
Chinese restaurants were also safe havens, the sociologists observed. Jews living predominantly Christian parts of the city might have to contend with the longstanding tensions between those groups. Furthermore, an Italian restaurant, which might bear religious imagery ranging from crucifixes to portraits of the Virgin Mary, could make for an uncomfortable dining experience. A Chinese eatery was more likely to have secular decor.
There was also the sense among some Jewish participants in the study that Chinese dining, with exotic interiors and the strange-sounding menu items, was a delightfully non-Jewish experience. Furthermore, like visiting museums and attending the theater, Chinese restaurants were seen as a means of broadening one’s cultural horizons. “I felt about Chinese restaurants the same way I did about the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” one of the study’s unnamed interview subjects remarked. “They were the two most strange and fascinating places my parents took me to, and I loved them both.”
For a fuller explanation on how this dining trend came about, you can read Tuchman and Levine’s study online [PDF]. And if you have memories of a Chinese restaurant experience, share them in the comments section below.
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