Christmas chow mein: The origin of Jews eating at Chinese restaurants

Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Chinese Food Restaurant Association)
Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas? (Southside Daily photo/Courtesy of the Chinese Food Restaurant Association)

VIRGINIA BEACH — Thousands of Hampton Roads families will spend time together on Christmas this year. Some will have Christmas dinner together, while others will attend Christmas Mass.

Some may do both.

However, Jewish residents in Hampton Roads won’t be celebrating at all, but some will likely take part in their own modern Christmas Day tradition: eating out at a Chinese restaurant.

The curious friendship between Jews and Chinese restaurants traces its origins to early 20th century New York, and still has relevance today — in Hampton Roads and throughout the country.

So why do some Jewish people eat at Chinese restaurants on Christmas?

For starters, it’s convenient: Chinese restaurants are typically open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“For us, Christmas is not a big thing — we’re all Buddhists,” said Emily Crell, former owner of the Forbidden City restaurant in Virginia Beach. “Our employees were all different nationalities, but most were not Christian or Catholic, so they just didn’t just celebrate.”

The fact many Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas is one of the similarities they share with Jews. But the full story of the affinity Jews have for Chinese restaurants began in the Big Apple nearly a century ago.

A cultural melting pot… of food

Waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, according to the book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine by Sarah Lohman. The neighborhood was teeming with tenements, docks, and factories — and also filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops.

Adjacent to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

Related story: Here’s how Kwanzaa is celebrated in Hampton Roads

“Jewish diners were attracted to Chinese food because, in their minds, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status,” according to the book Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, written by history professor Yong Chen.

Chen added that dairy isn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk, which is forbidden in the kosher diets to which many Jews adhere.

A familiar taste

Typical Chinese dishes also contain some Old World flavors that resonated with Jews who had recently moved to America.

According to a 1992 article titled “Safe Treyf,” published in the sociology journal Contemporary Ethnography, some Eastern European Jews in the early 20th century America tasted familiar elements in Chinese food; both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors, as well as noodle and egg-based dishes.

So the Christmas Day phenomenon is partly because of geography and convenience — Chinese restaurants evolved in New York City alongside a large Jewish population, and today are usually open on Christmas — but also because of the similarities between some Chinese and Eastern European foods.

Not all Jews partake in the tradition, however, those who keep kosher diets, typically the orthodox and conservative sects of Judaism, would not eat at any restaurant that was not certified as being kosher.

Christmas chow mein today

The tradition spans beyond books, sociological studies, and pop-culture reference; some local Jews have maintained a decades-old habit of Christmas chow mein.

For more than 20 years, some members of Ohef Sholom Temple in Norfolk have gathered at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. The gathering typically draws 35 or 40 people from different synagogues and social circles in Hampton Roads.

“We wouldn’t be sitting down to a traditional Christmas dinner as most Christian people are doing, but we do want to have our own form of family and fellowship,” said Alan Troy, a member of Ohef Shalom since 1976.

“It’s just fun,” Troy said.

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