Christmas Eve: What’s a Jew to Do?


Twas the night before Christmas and there was hardly a sound,
As Jews jumped in their cars and drove to Chinatown.
Their orders were given to waiters with care,
In hopes that wonton soup soon would be there.

-Nonna Gorilovskaya


Yes, Chinese food. On Christmas Eve, the Chosen People choose to have a little hot and sour.
The streets are empty, the storefronts are shuttered, and everyone else is sitting down to a big family meal.
It makes perfect sense.

This year is 5771 according to the Jewish calendar, but Chinese history only dates back to 4707; it makes you wonder what the Jews were eating for that first thousand years.
Jews have a well-known affinity for Chinese food. While it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment when the first Jewish immigrant put down his borscht and picked up an egg roll, in the early 20th century, the tradition fanned out from its Lower East Side New York beginnings and took hold in urban immigrant enclaves around the country. Chinatowns sprouted everywhere the Jews went— Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto; Chinese restaurants were always close by, inexpensive, and open on Sundays.

But is it kosher?
A lot of Jews grew up with the notion of Chinese food as ‘safe traif.’ Sure, there’s pork and shellfish in there, but it’s hidden in a tangle of won ton wrappers and mu shu vegetables. Don’t look too deeply—at the plate or into your secular Jewish heart— and it’s easy to ignore. And since nearly all Chinese food is dairy-free, there’s a free pass on the prohibition against mixing milk and meat .

The love goes both ways.
Yes, there are Chinese people who like Jewish food (although the joke is that they complain that they’re hungry again in two weeks).
China, which got its first synagogue in 1163, has a long-standing fascination with Jewish culture. Hebrew and Judaic Studies are taught at about a dozen of China’s universities, and a Chinese translation of Anne Frank’s diary has sold more than 40 million copies. There is even an expatriate New York bagel-maker in Beijing.

The Jewish Christmas in popular culture:

The Chinese food tradition has an entry in the Urban Dictionary and provided an amusing footnote to Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings.

Popular singer Darlene Love, best known for the holiday classic Christmas (Baby Please Come Home), provides the backing vocals for the very funny claymation short Christmas for the Jews.

The You Tube hit from a few years ago, Chinese Food on Christmas, makes a comeback every December.


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3 Responses to Christmas Eve: What’s a Jew to Do?

  1. Lora says:

    Jews and Chinese food are forever intertwined. I made Chinese 5 spice latkes on Hannukah to celebrate the connection.

  2. I always joined my best friend’s family (who were Jewish) on Christmas Eve as a child for a feast at their favourite Chinese restaurant — way better than hanging around the chimney waiting for Santa…love the opening “poem!” Theresa

  3. In Brooklyn, there are many glatt kosher Chinese restaurants that fill up on Christmas. I am not Jewish, but I’ve tried a few out. The food was pretty good, so it is a pretty tasty Christmas tradition!

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