There is widespread belief that Jews like Chinese food because Chinese restaurants were one of the few places open on Christmas.
Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut says that’s a myth.
“Is that how the affinity began with Chinese food? Absolutely not,” says Plaut, who holds a doctorate in Judaic studies from New York University and is the author of “A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to be Jewish.”
“The affinity for eating Chinese food on Christmas was probably the last development. Probably, it was the eating out to casual Chinese restaurants during the week, to going out on Sundays, and from there to patronizing Chinese restaurants on Christmas,” Plaut said.
The Jewish affinity for Chinese food originated in New York City’s Lower East Side. An early reference to Chinese food’s growing popularity in the Jewish community comes from an article from the 1920s in the Yiddish daily Der Tog, says Ted Merwin, who holds a doctorate from The City University of New York and wrote “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.” The article was called: “Down with gefilte fish, up with chop suey.”
“It obviously starts on the Lower East Side, at the turn of the 20th century, when Jews and Chinese [people] lived cheek by jowl with each other, along with lots of other ethnic and immigrant groups,” says Merwin.
While there were other immigrant communities with restaurants in the area, many had Christian iconography, such as pictures of venerated saints, that could be a turnoff to Jewish customers, Plaut explains. This was not the case in Chinese restaurants, says Jennifer 8. Lee, producer of the documentary “The Search for General Tso.” She said that Chinese restaurants had a more welcoming attitude toward Jewish patrons.
“At a time when a lot of Jews were very sensitive about how American they were, Chinese restaurants never looked down on Jews,” Lee says. “Because at least on the spectrum of American-ness and Eurocentric-ness, at least Jews were from Europe. So those restaurants were comfortable and welcoming in different ways.”
Additionally, there was no mixing of meat and milk in Chinese restaurants, Plaut says, which was a significant plus for the restaurant-goer who was looking to keep kosher.
This, of course, is not to say that Chinese food was inherently kosher, as many of the dishes included pork. However, this did not prove to be an obstacle.
“Chinese food uses a lot of pork and a lot of shellfish,” Lee says. “But for whatever reason, the rules were sometimes waived inside Chinese restaurants because it didn’t look like pork, it didn’t look like ham, it didn’t look like bacon, so like the little bits of meat inside an egg roll, or even, oddly, pork spare ribs, were kind of exempt from this rule.
“And I still have Jewish friends who are my generation, where the families don’t eat pork except in Chinese restaurants,” Lee adds.
“They considered Chinese food safe treyf,” Plaut says. “It was something they enjoyed, it wasn’t an overt violation of dietary and kosher laws, and so you could eat there, and still enjoy it with a smile on your face … without feeling like you were really violating Jewish tradition.”
Open for business
Another important factor may have been that Chinese restaurants did not operate on the Christian calendar, says Lee. As such, they were typically open on Sundays, when many other restaurants were closed for the Christian Sabbath.
Plaut also believes Christian practices on Sundays had a hand in nudging Jews toward Chinese food.
“[Sunday] was church day for most Americans, followed by a lunch, and American Jews may have felt left out of that Sunday tradition, and therefore went out to eat at restaurants on Sundays,” Plaut says. “And the patronage included Chinese food.”
In the earliest days of this tradition, it may have been novel just to eat out, particularly for new immigrants.
“There’s this whole tradition in the 1890s that immigrants started to eat out, something they never did in Eastern Europe,” Plaut says. “And it was prevalent really among immigrants who came from Eastern Europe.
Merwin believes the phenomenon largely began with the children of those immigrants.
“We’re really talking about the children of immigrants, and we’re talking about how they were beginning in that interwar period to move more into the mainstream of American society,” Merwin says. “I would say it’s not so much the immigrant generation, even though there was that proximity of Jews and Chinese people to each other, but much more so for their children, because their children wanted to be American.”
Merwin sees a connection between increasing assimilation in America’s Jewish community during the early 20th century, partly because of antisemitism, and the growing interest in Chinese food.
“During the 1920s, there was a pretty precipitous decline in the number of Jews who were keeping kosher,” Merwin says. “There was a lot of secularization in the Jewish community.”
During the 1920s and ‘30s, Jewish residents of places like Brooklyn or the Bronx might have kept kosher at home or when going out to a Sunday evening meal with their extended family, as in these situations they might be in view of their older relatives who consistently kept kosher, Merwin says. But when coming into Manhattan for their professional or social lives, these same Jews would be much more flexible about what they ate, creating a “bifurcated lifestyle” in which they kept kosher at some times while branching out to other cuisines at others.
According to Lee, by the 1920s, eating Chinese food had become a way for American Jews to impress others socially by showing they were cosmopolitan, particularly those who had been born in Europe themselves.
“There was a time when there were Jewish immigrants who were much more sensitive about where they had come from,” Lee says. “Many had come from rural backgrounds, and Chinese food was a way to show you were worldly and sophisticated.”
Merwin sees things similarly, though he attributes the desire to appear cosmopolitan more to the grandchildren of Jewish immigrants in the 1950s and ‘60s.
“They were into traveling to foreign places, they were into sampling all different kinds of food, they were into showing that they were really cultured,” Merwin says. “And so Chinese food was something exotic and it was something sort of exciting.”
At the same time, there may have been an uglier side to how Jewish customers of that generation viewed Chinese restaurants and their staff.
“Chinese people were still of a lower status than Jews were in society,” Merwin says. “So there was a kind of racism that was inherent in being able to go to the Chinese restaurant and sort of feel culturally superior for the first time.”
Fusion of Chinese and Jewish
As Jews began moving out of major cities and into other areas of the country, Chinese restaurants followed their customers, helping to account for their ubiquity today, Lee says.
“You definitely see a flourishing of Chinese restaurants where there was a strong Jewish presence.”
Today, Chinese food may be more closely tied with Jewish culture than ever. Lee notes how several of her Jewish friends typically order Chinese for Shabbat dinner, while Merwin points to kung pao singles events for young Jews, as well as a Chicago deli, called the Eleven City Diner, that gives out fortune cookies on Christmas Eve.
Lee also notes attempts to fuse Jewish and Chinese dishes, such as with pastrami egg rolls, and Chinese restaurants whose names give nods to Jewish customers, like Chai Peking in Atlanta and Genghis Cohen in Los Angeles.
Despite all this history, times could be changing.
“My children didn’t grow up eating Chinese food,” Merwin says. “They grew up on Indian food. They don’t really have a huge fondness for Chinese food. They certainly don’t see it as a Jewish thing.”
Merwin sees the gravitation of Jews toward Chinese food as something that occurred for many reasons during a particular time in American history. And now, American Jews are gravitating away from it, he says, partly because culture moves toward whatever is new and fashionable.
“Now you can’t even go to a Chinese restaurant without having sushi and pan-Asian, and now it’s hard to even find a decent Chinese restaurant in a lot of places, because people want to have such a huge amount of choice in terms of what they eat. They want to have a whole smorgasbord every night for dinner,” Merwin says. “It’s inevitable, under those circumstances, that Chinese food is going to lose its specialness, when all these other kinds of food have come to the fore.”