Jewish American Chinese restaurant patronage

My Jewish Learning

Jewish American Chinese restaurant patronage became prominent in the 20th century, especially among Jewish New Yorkers. It has received attention as a paradoxical form of assimilation by embracing an unfamiliar cuisine that eased the consumption of non-kosher foods.

A common stereotype, the relationship Jewish people have with Chinese restaurants during Christmas is well documented. The definitive scholarly and popular treatment of this subject appears in the book A Kosher Christmas: ‘Tis the Season to Be Jewish by Rabbi Joshua Eli Plaut, Ph.D. in the third chapter entitled “We Eat Chinese Food on Christmas.” The origin of Jews eating Chinese food dates to the end of the 19th century on the Lower East Side, Manhattan, because Jews and the Chinese lived in proximity to each other. There were around a million Eastern European Jews living in New York around 1910 and the Jews constituted over “one quarter of the city’s population.” The majority of the Chinese immigrated to the Lower East Side from California after the 1880s and many of them went into the restaurant business.

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The first mention of the Jewish population eating Chinese food was in 1899 in the American Hebrew Weekly journal. They criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants, particularly singling out Chinese food. Jews continued to eat at these establishments. In 1936, it was reported that there were eighteen Chinese restaurants open in heavily populated Jewish areas in the Lower East Side. Jews felt more comfortable at these restaurants than they did at the Italian or German eateries that were prevalent during this time period. Joshua Plaut wrote of the origin of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas: “It dates at least as early as 1935 when The New York Timesreported a certain restaurant owner named Eng Shee Chuck who brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark. Over the years, Jewish families and friends gather on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Chinese restaurants across the United States to socialize and to banter, to reinforce social and familiar bonds, and to engage in a favorite activity for Jews during the Christmas holiday. The Chinese restaurant has become a place where Jewish identity is made, remade and announced.”

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The relationship that Jews have with Chinese food runs deeper than stereotype. “Eating Chinese [food] has become a meaningful symbol of American Judaism… For in eating Chinese, the Jews found a modern means of expressing their traditional cultural values. The savoring of Chinese food is now a ritualized celebration of immigration, education, family, community, and continuity.” Chinese food is considered a staple in the Jewish culture, and the further option of kosher Chinese food is also becoming more available in the US.

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