Friday, December 25, 2020/10 Tevet, 5781
Parashat Vayigash Genesis 44:18–47:27
Growing up, my family was not religious, but there was one thing I could religiously count on, Chinese food on Christmas. I delighted in seeing just about every Jew I knew as I waited in line and enjoyed a delicious meal. The trend continues right here in Los Angeles. At least one Chinese restaurant was so in demand this week that they had to stop taking new orders days ago to fulfill the ones they already had.
From where does this strange tradition originate? It dates to the late 1800’s in New York City. Eastern European Jews began to immigrate to the United States in significant numbers between 1880 and 1920. Chinese Americans and Jewish immigrants settled down on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There Jews opened delis, which provided a bit of nostalgia for an Eastern European Jewish customer base. Italian restaurants opened for fellow Italians. Chinese Americans opened Chinese restaurants as well; only they did not merely cater to other Asians. They opened their doors to anyone and everyone so that they could thrive during a time of high anti-Chinese racism.
According to Sociologist Everett Hughes, Jews saw Chinese food as cosmopolitan and sophisticated. It was something new and exciting. Although Chinese food was certainly not kosher, Jews viewed it as non-threatening or “safe treyf” because ingredients were often minced to such an extent that Jews could not SEE the pork or shrimp they were eating. Quickly Chinese food became a Jewish favorite.
There was also a powerful bond between the Chinese and Jewish Americans. Not only were the two groups neighbors, but they both knew what it was like to deal with racism and to struggle in America. Second-generation American Jews (especially New York Jews) grew up enjoying Chinese food. It became such an essential part of the Jewish American experience that even many Ashkenazi Jews feel a stronger connection to Chinese food than they do to the deli favorites of Eastern Europe. This connection is all the more palpable on Christmas, when most other restaurants and businesses are closed.
Today, our temple honors this 140-year-old tradition by forming a partnership with Szechuan Chinese Restaurant in Torrance. If you have a Chinese food craving, Temple Beth El will receive 10% of any pick-up order if you show them the coupon. The coupon was emailed to you earlier this morning. If you did not receive it, please email Carrie here and she will send it to you. Whether you are celebrating Christmas with Chinese food and a movie today, or simply preparing for a restorative Shabbat, I hope that your day is merry and bright.
Rabbi Cassi Kail