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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Jews and Chinese Food on Christmas

When Elana Kagan appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in June of 2010, she fielded many questions. Maybe the most memorable was her response to Lindsay Graham’s asking her where she was on Christmas. “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

As a U.S. history teacher, my first thought was, “Why does the president’s nominee for the supreme court have to receive Senate approval? My second was, “Chinese food on Christmas?” Where did that come from?

So, first of all, Senate approval is required by the Constitution. I’m not going to turn this into an article on the Federalist Papers.

(Why not?)

Because only history nerds…

(Like you)

…like me find that stuff exciting. Article II, Section 2, Clause 2 of the Constitution states that the POTUS…

(The what?)

The POTUS, the President Of The United States, can appoint “judges, ambassadors, consuls, ministers and other officers with the advice and consent of the Senate.”

(Now why are you telling us this?)

Because I had seen a Facebook post that claimed that the process is not in the Constitution and that the first Supreme Court nominee to face the senate was Louis Brandeis…because he was a Jew.

(Was that true?)

Yes… Louis Brandeis was a Jew.

(No, was he the first Supreme Court nominee to face the Senate?)

Also no. The first nominee to face the senate was Harlan Fiske Stone in 1925. The Senate enjoyed this practice so much that they waited until 1955 to make it a custom of the process to have all Supreme Court nominees appear in person.

(And what of the “custom” of eating Chinese food on Christmas?)

I grew up in a shomer Shabbos household in the 1970s and 1980s. I had never heard of the practice until I saw a post on Facebook thanking Jews for buying Chinese food on Christmas.

To answer the question of “Where did this come from?” we first have to look into the whole idea of Chinese food in the first place.

The U.S. Census tells us that the first Chinese immigrants to the U.S.

(I know this one, they arrived here in 1849 for the California “Gold Rush”)…

Actually, the U.S. Census says that there has been a Chinese presence in the U.S. since 1820, but yes, a large percentage came here first for the 1849 Gold Rush, then to help build the Transcontinental Railroad.

(What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?)

You mean like Rashi’s comment on why the Torah specified that Hashem spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai? (?מה עניין שמיטה אצל הר סיני) or “What does shmita have to do with Mount Sinai?”

(Yes, why are you telling us about Chinese immigrants?)

There are two Chinatowns. One in San Francisco where they invented the fortune cookie, one in New York City where they popularized General Tso’s Chicken. At the turn of the century, Jewish and Chinese immigrants lived side by side on New York City’s Lower East Side. Both cultures used garlic and onions for seasoning and there’s no dairy in Chinese cuisine. That’s where the cultural diffusion occurred.

There are two origins to the “Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas” story:

1. It was exotic and not terribly expensive, so working class people could afford to enjoy it.

2. If Jews wanted to go out to eat on a day when many restaurants were closed, these restaurants were open.

The first printed mention of Jews eating in Chinese restaurants goes back to 1899, when the American Jewish Journal publicly called out those Jews who were eating at non-kosher restaurants, specifically in Chinese restaurants. The New York Times mentioned this cultural diffusion in a 1935 article. Philip Roth mentioned it in his book “Portnoy’s Complaint,” and Sid Caesar joked about it on Caesar’s Hour.

As I said, I came from a strictly kosher home, so I didn’t even know that Jews ate Chinese food until the 1980s. After marching for Soviet Jewry, my parents took us to Schmulke Bernstein’s at 135 Essex Street on the Lower East Side. Bernstein had started adding Chinese food to his strictly kosher deli in 1959, so I was late to the party.

While attending NYU in 1989, my friends took me to Moshe Peking on 37th, and I found out what a “Pu Pu Platter” was. Neither of those kosher Chinese restaurants still exist, but I was hooked. I grew up in White Plains, New York. Back then we didn’t even have kosher pizza in my town, let alone kosher Chinese food. I moved to the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1998 and a few months later a kosher Chinese/Thai food place opened on 93rd street. The week they opened I applied for the job of answering their phones. In the two years that I worked there I learned how to cook “American style” Chinese food and authentic Thai food.

(You mean they do not eat Sesame Chicken in China?)

What Americans would order and what the chefs would make for themselves are two very different foods. Traditional Hunan cooking does not have the heavy sauces we have come to associate with dishes like General Tso’s Chicken.

(Ok, General Tso was a real general, right?)

He was, but there is no way that he invented the dish that bears his name. Zuo Zongtang lived from 1812 to 1885 and gained local fame for his leadership against the Taiping Rebellion. “General Tso’s Chicken” was invented by Peng Chang-kuei, who had to leave China when the Nationalists lost to the Communists in 1949. Peng was the chef to the Nationalist government. While living in Taiwan, he created the dish in the Hunan style of cooking with an American twist…copious amounts of sugar. Trust me, I’ve seen this dish prepared.

(So, General Tso’s Chicken is like creating a chicken dish and naming it “George Washington’s Chicken.”)

Pretty much. When Nixon went to China in 1972, General Tso’s Chicken came to New York City.


David Roher is a USAT certified triathlon and marathon coach. He is a multi-Ironman finisher and veteran special education teacher. He is on Instagram @David Roher140.6.

He can be reached at [email protected].

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