‘Tis the season – for Chinese food. As every good Jew in L.A. knows, Christmas is the ideal time to devour dumplings, noodles and soup in Alhambra, Monterrey Park, or the San Gabriel Valley – today’s true Chinatowns. While Gentile families carve their holiday hams, Jews go out for what has become their traditional holiday meal: Szechwan duck, egg foo yung, fried rice and fortune cookies.
Now, the “Chinese Rest. Assoc. of the United States” wants to thank “the Jewish people” for eating its food on Christmas. (At least, according to a hand-written sign in Northhampton, Mass. Check out the LA Weekly post here.) No problem, I say right back.
Of course, I have always been a Chinese food fan. Once, I told my preschool teachers I was Chinese. What else did they expect? It was “cultural diversity week.” The lessons at my multicultural preschool were about race, nationality, ethnicity and background. My teachers explained that people express culture with their favorite family recipes. Well, in my family, there was plenty of Shanghai Garden take out.
But my birth heritage is actually Jewish (as my preschool teachers delicately reminded me). I have enjoyed my fair share of matzah brei, chopped liver and bagels with lox. At the end of Shabbat services, my Hebrew School friends and I often gobbled up braided, golden challah bread by the fistful. And what’s not to love about good deli plates from Nate and Al’s?
Oh, and I love gefilte fish! No matter that many are repulsed by those cold gelatinous-skinned morsels of seafood from Manishevitz jars. (What’s in a gefilte fish? Erm, some kind of whitefish. Better not to ask.) Other things I don’t love as much, like kasha, a buckwheat cereal with the consistency and taste of ground cardboard. There’s no way this is the “Jewish soul food,” as some say.
Another traditional food is tsimmes. I grew up hearing the word “tsimmes” as a scold, like, “Don’t make such a tsimmes out of everything.” This admonition to “keep cool” uses tsimmes to mean “a big deal.” Jews know tsimmes as a pudding of boiled carrots sweetened with sugar or honey, sometimes including raisins, prunes or chunks of left-over, bland meat.
Other basic Jewish foods, to me, are the left-over sandwiches and cookies from the perpetual homeless and AIDS brunches my temple sponsored. As a young girl, I was happy enough with the sandwiches, not grasping the misery of those for whom those sandwiches had been made.
But no commentary on Jewish food would be complete without mentioning Chinese cuisine. How can the Jewish enthusiasm for Chinese food be explained? Chinese food and Jewish people have been linked so long, they’ve become the subject of a joke based a comparison of the Chinese and Jewish calendars. (On the Jewish calendar, 2011 corresponds to 5773; For the Chinese, February 2012 will usher in Lunar Year 4709. According to these dates, Jewish culture is older by 1000 years.)
This is how it goes: A Jewish man and a Chinese man were conversing, and the Jewish man commented upon what a wise people the Chinese are. “Yes,” replied the Chinese man, “Our culture is over 4,000 years old. But, you Jews are a very wise people, too.” The Jewish man replied, “Yes, our culture is over 5,000 years old.” The Chinese man was incredulous. “That’s impossible,” he replied. “Where did your people eat for a thousand years?”
Chinese food is not kosher unless it’s been rabbi-certified. But Chinese food is acceptable to many Jews because milk and meat dishes are kept separate, a kosher requirement. The spices are also familiar to Eastern European Jews who cook with garlic and onions.
Why are Chinese restaurants filled with Jews on Christmas day? One reason is that Chinese restaurants are the only open businesses while most Americans are home opening presents under a pine tree. In today’s Los Angeles there is a wide selection of “Jewish Christmas dining.” Many Jews choose restaurants in lively Asian neighborhoods that view Christmas as another random American holiday offering a free day from work and school.
It’s comforting to know that every year there’s a place we can go while the Christian world is at home stuffing stockings and opening presents under a pine tree. It’s…what the word? To borrow from Tevye the Milkman from the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof,” Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas because of …“TRADITION!”