S. Florida Jews follow century-old tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas

Chinese restaurants will overflow Tuesday with Jewish customers hungry for chow mein, egg rolls and wonton soup.

Jews have cultivated an emotional connection to Chinese cuisine since both communities arrived en masse as immigrants to the United States a century ago, and many people strengthen those ties every year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, when few other restaurants are open.

Ron Goldfarb, of Boca Raton , remembers eating at the Jade Garden restaurant on Jerome Avenue in the Bronx in the 1940s.

"All the restaurants were closed on Christmas Day," recalled Goldfarb, a retired lawyer. "What was open? The Chinese restaurants. It's a joke today, but we say it with love."

South Florida's Chinese restaurant owners say they are gearing up for the annual deluge.

"My Jewish customers say there are only two places to go on Christmas Day: to the movies or out for Chinese food," said Bob Chen, owner of Mr. Chen's Hunan Palace in Delray Beach .

At New China restaurant in Tamarac , the owners are calling in extra staff to accommodate the expected crowds.

"It can get insane," said Siqi He, the owner's daughter, referring to the crush of Jewish families expected Monday and Tuesday. "As soon as one table leaves, another group fills it."

Jewish affection for Chinese dishes, not just at Christmas but throughout the year, has become a focus of lively academic study, the subject of books, blogs, term papers and treatises, not to mention punchlines from plenty of comedians and others.

During her confirmation hearing, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was asked by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham what she had done the previous Christmas.

"Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant," Kagan responded.

The ties began in the early 20th century on the Lower East Side of New York, where one million Eastern European Jews lived in 1910. Many Jews ventured into nearby Chinatown and were welcomed by the Chinese, new immigrants like themselves, according to "Safe Treyf: New York Jews and Chinese Food," a 1992 research paper by sociologists Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine.

For these immigrants and their first-generation children, Chinese food was the perfect non-threatening exotic meal, the authors wrote. It was dairy-free, so Jews didn't have to worry about the kosher prohibition against mixing milk products with meat. And there were many familiar ingredients, such as chicken, celery, onions and garlic.

Chinese food was "safe treyf," Yiddish for acceptable unkosher food, because many Jews ignored the tiny bits of pork and shellfish that would be forbidden in their observant homes, said Donald Siegel, author of "From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food."

Take the egg roll, filled with shredded cabbage and carrots but also tiny bits of ground pork, shrimp or chicken. Or wonton soup, a clear soup with a dumpling that resembles the Jewish kreplach but can be filled with unkosher meats. Or spare ribs. Who knew the sweet roasted red ribs actually came from a pig?

"If you couldn't identify it, it was considered safe treyf," Siegel said. "Rabbis generally don't agree with this interpretation."

Although decades have passed since Jews left the Lower East Side en masse for the suburbs, there are still few options for places to go on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. In the week before the holiday, conversations among some Jewish families focused on how to secure a table before the onslaught of fellow Jewish diners arrives.

"My mother called me and said, 'What movie are we going to and which Chinese restaurant should we eat at?'" said Sheryl Cutler, 46, a Boca Raton nurse and mother of two. "The restaurants are packed. We're lucky to get a reservation."

Although contemporary Jews have other options for food on Christmas Day, many continue to eat Chinese, to connect with their ancestors and maintain a family tradition, said Hanna Raskin, Seattle Weekly's food critic, who wrote her master's thesis on the topic.

"There's a need to observe tradition in December, no matter what religion you belong to," Raskin said.

Lsolomon@tribune.com or 561-243-6536.


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