When asked during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings how she spent Christmas Day, Judge Elena Kagan responded, “… like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” It’s become something of an inside joke that this is how Jews spend Christmas, eating out at Chinese restaurants and going to the movies. Despite the fact that today there are many more dining options available on Christmas, the practice of eating out in Chinese restaurants endures as a cherished tradition to be shared with family and friends.
The JMM’s recently opened exhibition, Chosen Food: Cuisine, Culture, and American Jewish Identity, provides scholarly context for the connection between Jews and Chinese food. The Jewish attraction to Chinese food to Jews has roots in the early 20th century when Jewish immigrants lived in close proximity to Chinese restaurants inNew York’sLower East Side. Despite the fact that the restaurants were not kosher, the use of pork and seafood was well disguised in sauces and there was no worry of mixing meat and dairy (thus leading to the notion of “safe treyfe”). As Jews moved out to the suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed recognized the loyalty of this particular clientele.
The Christmas/Chinese food connection has been highlighted in comedy routines and pop culture references and has even been satirized in song.Baltimore’s own Brandon Walker had a YouTube hit with his 2007 music video, “Chinese Food on Christmas” that included these lyrics:
“I eat Chinese food on Christmas.
Go to the movie theater, too.
‘Cause there just ain’t much else to do on Christmas
When you’re a Jew!”
(Check out the full video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dukfZs3RGhw)
Recognizing an opportunity to celebrate this great Jewish tradition of Christmas and Chinese food, the JMM devoted our annual Christmas Day bash to Chanukah, Christmas, and Everything Chinese. On Sunday, December 25, nearly 260 people joined us for festivities that featured Chinese food, games, and crafts. Guests of all ages enjoyed sampling Chinese treats (generously provided by David Chu’s China Bistro) as they gathered around card tables for competitive games of mahjong, another treasured Jewish pastime with Chinese roots, and Chinese checkers.
We even offered lessons, courtesy of Lois Madow, president of the American Mah-Jongg Association, for people interested in learning how to play. (For a comprehensive list of mahjong rules, check out http://www.mahjong.net/mahjong-rules/) Several of my colleagues and I sat in on a lesson, and while I can’t say we understand all the ins and outs of this complicated game (although by the end we could distinguish between a “bam” and a “crack”), we had a blast learning and are even planning a few lunchtime games to sharpen our skills.
In another corner of our lobby, children (and adults too) patiently learned the art of origami (visit www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origami for the Chinese connection with origami) as they folded decorated pieces of paper into intricate designs including swans, flowers, and dreidels (there’s the Chanukah tie in!)
Other craft activities included paper lantern making, Chinese fan decorating, and beading.
Visitors learned about the Chinese signs of the zodiac and even had the opportunity to find out their corresponding sign on the Jewish zodiac which features traditional Jewish nosh (chopped liver, egg cream, bagel, etc.) instead of animals.
In the end, a good time was had by all!