Why Do Jewish People Eat Chinese Food On Christmas?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What is the most American thing a Jew can do on Christmas? Well, for me, it's to go to work. Let one more Christmas observer have the day off. But when it's time to send out for lunch on Christmas Day, I do as so many of my co-religionists do - I send out for Chinese food. Chinese food on Christmas has become as American Jewish as apple pie. And as part of our exploration of holiday traditions, we have invited Rabbi Joshua Plaut to our studios. He's the author of "A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis The Season To Be Jewish." Welcome to the program.
JOSHUA PLAUT: Glad to be here. Thank you.
SIEGEL: You have a chapter in the book called "We Eat Chinese Food On Christmas." How long has this been going on?
PLAUT: At least since 1935, according to The New York Times, which cites that a man by the name of Eng Shee Chuck brought chow mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children's Home in Newark, N.J. That's the first written citation of Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas.
SIEGEL: It's either the discovery by Jews of Chinese food on Christmas or the discovery of Jewish customers by a Chinese restaurant on Christmas, whichever way you want to look at it.
PLAUT: Probably both.
SIEGEL: Probably both. And this has developed. This has become quite common over the years.
PLAUT: Yes. Actually, Jews eating and Chinese restaurants goes back to 1899, when the American Jewish Journal - a weekly publication - criticized Jews for eating at non-kosher restaurants and singling out, in particular, Jews who flocked to Chinese restaurants. So this marriage between Jews and Chinese food really goes back to when Jews and Chinese people were immigrants in the United States.
SIEGEL: Which raises the question of a phrase sometimes used to describe Chinese food - safe trayf, using the Hebrew word for un-kosher food, trayf. What's the deal here?
PLAUT: Jews in Chinese restaurants are eating all sorts of non-kosher food items such as shellfish, pork products which are hidden in a wonton or in some type of eggroll. And so you're able to partake in this wonderful delicacy without actually knowingly eating this non-kosher food item. Also, in Chinese restaurants, there is no use of milk. So this is a place you can engage in eating this food that seemingly is OK and kosher but really is not and still have a smile and delight in it without feeling guilty.
SIEGEL: (Laughter) As you document in this chapter of your book, by the 1950s, the allure of Chinese food on Christmas Day - when we should say the Chinese restaurants were open, no small thing that - the allure became the stuff of, to use the technical term, shtick. It was food for comedy as well as for the body, yeah?
PLAUT: Yes. It was mentioned in television skits with Alan King and Buddy Hackett. Sid Caesar joked about it on the Caesar comedy hour mocking or making a parody out of Jews eating in Chinese restaurants and not knowing how to order or communicate with the waiters. It's very funny that Philip Roth in "Portnoy's Complaint" talks about how Chinese restaurant owners thought that the Jews and Yiddish-inflected English was the King's English.
SIEGEL: So one could go there and feel pretty well established in the Chinese restaurant?
PLAUT: Honestly. The Chinese restaurant was a safe haven for American Jews who felt like outsiders on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, you become an insider. You can celebrate somebody else's birthday and yet be amongst friends and family and members of the tribe, thereby the outsider on Christmas becomes the insider.
SIEGEL: So do you have a Christmas Day ritual that involves Chinese food?
PLAUT: No, I don't. I used to go sit on Santa Claus' lap growing up as a child in Great Neck the son of a rabbi. But we would go out and look at - when I was a child - the beautiful lights on the trees in our neighborhood in Great Neck. And then we would go to Rockefeller Center and go skating. And I asked my mother later while I was working on this book, how could you take me, the son of a prominent rabbi and civil rights leader, out to sit on Santa Claus' lap? And she said, why not? All Americans did it, and you were as comfortable in your Jewish identity. So why not enjoy the holiday season?
SIEGEL: (Laughter) I see. I see. And to carry your mother's insight and wisdom forward, there's really nothing wrong with non-Jewish American Christian families having a little Chinese food on Christmas also.
PLAUT: I think we are like "Fiddler On The Roof" yelling tradition. Americans eating Chinese food on Christmas has become an American tradition. And it's just something that's become part of the holiday spirit. And it's part of the season of joy that - it's one of our minor contributions as Jews in America to the American way of life.
SIEGEL: Well, Rabbi Joshua Plaut, thanks so much and merry Christmas.
PLAUT: I wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy holidays and a good peaceful New Year.
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