Chinese Food on a Jewish Christmas

By Zhaoyang Liu

In the United States, there is a tradition of Jewish-Americans eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas. Although this practice may seem odd on the surface, a deeper exploration into its history reveals an interconnection between two immigrant communities in the United States. In an interview published by NPR, Robert Siegel speaks with Rabbi Joshua Plaut about the link between Jews and Chinese food.

Plaut starts off by suggesting one possible origin of the custom: 

“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.”

He then explains that the relationship between Jews and Chinese food is likely even older: 

“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.”

Additionally, Plaut mentions the role of Chinese food in Jewish kosher (religious dietary laws) traditions:

“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.”

The interview can be heard below:

Reflection Questions:

1. To what extent is this a Jewish story? A Chinese story? An immigration story? An American story? 

2. What does this story reveal about Jewish identity in the U.S.? What does it reveal about the Chinese-American immigrant community? In what ways did this relationship arise out of a shared unfamiliarity with the holiday of Christmas?

3. Over time, the ritual of Chinese food on Christmas has expanded beyond Jewish-American communities. Why do you think this practice ended up filtering its way into general American culture? How do traditions spread from immigrant communities into the dominant society? What do these stories tell us about the integration of newcomers?