A (Jewish) Christmas Tradition

By Leah Hochbaum Rosner

Published December 19, 2007, issue of December 21, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Judaism is a religion that thrives on rituals. We light candles before the Sabbath, recite special prayers before drinking wine and, most inexplicably, eat Chinese food on Christmas. In her forthcoming book “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food” (to be published by Twelve in March 2008), New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee seeks out the origin of the chosen people’s chow mein mania. In her quest, she uncovers the truth about Washington, D.C.’s Great Kosher Duck Scandal of 1989, travels to China to meet with the lost Chinese Jews of Kaifeng and learns that Confucius might not have anything at all to say about the matter. Leah Hochbaum Rosner spoke with the author to find out why Jews who don’t light Sabbath candles and who omit the pre-wine blessings still make time for Chinese food — on Jesus’ birthday and throughout the year.

Leah Hochbaum Rosner: For a non-Jew, you seem awfully knowledgeable about kashrut. I’ve been Jewish my entire life, and I still get confused.

Jennifer 8. Lee: I went to the library to learn. Then we got a rabbi who works for the OK [Kosher Certification] to fact-check. Then, my Jewish friends, who are sporadically culturally Jewish, would read it and change the wording. Basically, everyone went over it until we got to a point where people stopped complaining.

LHR: In your book, you cite many reasons for the Jewish love of Chinese cuisine, including the fact that few dairy products are used in Chinese cooking — making it a good option for those who keep kosher — and one Jewish man’s reasoning that the food is inexpensive and “Jews are concerned with value.” Which is it?

J8L: I think the single most important thing is that Jews and Chinese are non-Christian immigrant groups. They were both always outsiders. And they share a lot of traits, specifically their love of education and family. So they were drawn to each other. Also, I spoke to a lot of my Jewish friends. They talked about going out for Chinese food as such a family tradition, something that’s been passed down from generation to generation. My generation doesn’t really keep kosher anymore, but in the previous generation people played all sorts of mind games with themselves. Like maybe there was pork or shrimp in egg rolls, but if it was shredded and it didn’t look like pork or shrimp, there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. They made some sort of weird exception for Chinese food, because it was exotic and they felt the need to explore it.

LHR: You found one of the few remaining Chinese Jews of Kaifeng. What was that like?

J8L: It was unreal. What I love is that she makes these paper carvings with “Shalom” and “I Love Israel” in English and “China Kaifeng” in Chinese. She’s not observant. I mean, I’m more Jewish that she is. I grew up a block away from the Jewish Theological Seminary on [Manhattan’s] Upper West Side. I learned about Hanukkah before Christmas. But she’s played into the expectations of visitors and has become professionally Jewish. She sells the carvings at $2 apiece. She’ll sell thousands of them at a time. She’s a hard bargainer. But she gave me a great answer to the question of why Jews love Chinese food: “Because it tastes good.”

LHR: You write that the opening of Moshe Dragon, a kosher Chinese eatery near Washington, D.C., signified the establishment of a Jewish community there in 1989. Of course, that restaurant was eventually undone by a scandal involving purportedly treyf ducks. Still, why is having a kosher Chinese place so important to a neighborhood?

J8L: It’s sort of like getting a sports team. But getting a kosher Chinese restaurant is a much bigger deal from the Jewish perspective.

LHR: So since you consider yourself to be somewhat of an honorary Jew, come Christmas Eve, will you be going out for Chinese food?

J8L: I might, but we usually go for Korean.

Leah Hochbaum Rosner is a freelance writer living in New York.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.