A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to Be Jewish

By Joshua Eli Plaut | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 3
WE EAT CHINESE
FOOD ON CHRISTMAS

During Elena Kagan’s United States Supreme Court confirmation hearings of 2010, at a particularly contentious moment, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham directed the discussion to the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner. Graham then asked the candidate where she was on Christmas Day. Justice Kagan famously answered, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Her comment provoked laughter and reduced the level of tension in the room. Recognizing that some in the room might be unfamiliar with the custom, Senator Charles Schumer of New York then explained how Jews had a special affinity with eating out at Chinese restaurants on Christmas because they were the only restaurants open in New York City. A popular joke reflects on this affinity for Jews to eat in Chinese restaurants: “The Jewish people are 5,000 years old, and the Chinese people are 3,000 years old. So what did the Jews eat for 2,000 years?”

Chinese restaurants became a favorite eatery for Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States and to New York City, in particular, in the early twentieth century. Chinese cuisine was an inexpensive and exotic alternative to the more familiar and expensive foods served at Jewish delicatessens.1 It was a happy coincidence that Chinese restaurants stayed open on Christmas Eve, thus giving Jews across the United States a natural venue in which to partake of their own versions of Christmas dinner. “Eating Chinese” on Christmas soon became a national sensation that defined Christmastime activity for Jews all over the United States.

The origin of this venerated Jewish Christmas tradition dates to the end of the nineteenth century on the Lower East Side of New York City. Jews found Chinese restaurants readily available in urban and suburban areas in America where both Jews and Chinese lived in close proximity.2 The first

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