Wednesday, December 25, 2019

The Sino-Jewish Axis

During Associate U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s 2010 confirmation hearings, she was asked where she had spent the previous Christmas. With a broad smile, Ms. Kagan responded, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Senator Charles Schumer, a Jewish senator from New York, explained to his colleagues that the only restaurants open on Christmas are Chinese restaurants, since most other ethnic food establishments are closed due to their observance of their Christian holiday. Laughter ensued.

The established affinity of Jews for Chinese food can be attributed to factors beyond seeking a place to eat on one particular day a year. Below are some suggested motivations.

The Jewish and Chinese communities in the United States are two of the largest non-Christian minorities, and have been, since the turn of the 20th century. In 1910, there were 1,000,000 Jews living in New York City, comprising 25% of the population, and, at the same time, Chinese Americans moved from California to lower Manhattan, living side-by-side with the immigrant Jewish population, and many of them entered the restaurant business. The connection therefore, could be a factor of a shared geography.

Others view Chinese food as culturally close to kosher food. In the early 20th century, fidelity to the traditional laws of kashrut (dietary laws) was very inconsistent among the immigrant population. While many maintained the dietary laws according to the letter and spirit of halacha (Jewish law), others sought small departures, and others rejected kashrut entirely. While there are some fully kosher Chinese restaurants (mostly in areas with large Jewish populations), most Chinese restaurants do not observe the Jewish dietary laws. One difference between Chinese food and Italian and Mexican diets is that Chinese cooking generally avoid using dairy products. For Jews looking to take baby steps away from the traditional dietary laws, not full breaches, some argue that Chinese food was a type of compromise in avoiding mixing milk and meat. Similarly, others advance that since Chinese chefs tend to mince, chop, process and cut, they somewhat “disguise” the non-kosher ingredients, which made the meal seem less blatantly non-kosher for those not seeking to emphasize their break with tradition. However, others, such as the author of “New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern” argue that embracing the Chinese menu was an act of disobedience to the strict kosher rules, as the Chinese menu features foods that are very foreign to the kosher palate, such as swine products, lobsters, shrimp and other forbidden sea creatures.

Another suggestion advances that Chinese cooking is known to adapt to adopted countries, and, could make customers accustomed to Jewish food feel comfortable. Ms. Jennifer 8. Lee, producer of “The Search for General Tso,” argues that “Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of American Jews. In fact, they identify with it more than they do with gefilte fish or all kinds of Eastern European dishes of yore.”

Josh Ozersky, a food writer, opined that Jews love Chinese food because it’s so conducive to “take out.” Culturally, he writes, Jews love to eat at home, and traditional Jewish foods take a long time to make. Chinese food is easily transferred to one’s home and can generally be obtained or prepared quickly and easily.

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