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Voices Fall-Winter 2011:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “Jewish Activities on Christmas: An Online Case Study” by Mu Li here.
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Volume 37

Jewish Activities on Christmas: An Online Case Study by Mu Li

I miss New York City at Christmastime. It’s not the tree in Rockefeller Center or the ice skaters, the gray snow or the windows at Lord and Taylor’s. It’s eating Chinese food and going to a movie on Christmas Day, a New York Jew’s ritual.

—Molly Jackel, 2005

In the minds of many people around the world—both Christians and non- Christians—Christmas means Santa, exchanging gifts with family members and friends, a family dinner of turkey, carols, and a decorated Christmas tree. No matter how secular elements in American society and popular culture have whittled away at the religious meanings of Christmas—and even many Christians now consider Christmas an American holiday, a secular holiday, or a cultural holiday—my online observation suggests that most Jewish people, especially Orthodox Jews, still consider it an important Christian holiday, if not the most important one. The religious nature of Christmas leaves many people of other religions outside the nationwide celebration.

Jews constitute one of the largest non- Christian groups in the United States, and they have generally not acculturated to mainstream Christmas traditions. For reasons both religious and historical, most Jewish people maintain their traditional holiday observations, such as Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, which is determined by the Hebrew calendar but falls in late November or December. As Jonathon Ament writes in “American Jewish Religious Denominations,” a report based on the 2000–2001 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) for the United Jewish Communities, “Most American Jews identify as Jews through a denominational prism, unlike the experience in other large Jewish population centers such as Israel or the former Soviet Union (FSU). The demographic characteristics and Jewish connections of those who identify and affiliate with Jewish religious denominations therefore take on special importance in the American setting” (2005, 3).

The National Jewish Population Survey is a nationally representative survey of the Jewish population living in the United States— more than 4.3 million—administered to a group of approximately 4,500 respondents. Interviewing for NJPS took place from August 21, 2000, to August 30, 2001, and was conducted by telephone, using a random sample of telephone numbers in all fifty states and the District of Columbia. Among all respondents, 34 percent called themselves Reform Jews; 26 percent self-identified as Conservative; 13 percent described themselves as Orthodox; 2 percent considered themselves Reconstructionist; and the other 25 percent were “just Jewish.” Therefore, nearly 75 percent of these American Jews prefer to identify themselves as Jews through particular Jewish denominations. No matter which form of Judaism is claimed, religion clearly plays an important role in the everyday lives of many American Jews.

The above data accord with the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey. According to the 1990 survey, 82 percent of Jewish households never have a Christmas tree, and less than 3 percent of families where both spouses are Jewish have a Christmas tree (Kosmin 1991). According to one blogger, Tracey R. Rich, and several of her friends, many Jewish families with small children have Christmas trees to keep their children from feeling deprived or left out of the aggressively marketed Christmas season (2007). The survey findings seem to indicate that some number of Jewish families choose to deny or downplay the Christmas trees they had.

During my online research on Jewish Christmas traditions, I also conducted a similar investigation of Chinese observations of the holiday. Like Jews, most Chinese people follow the lunar calendar and celebrate Chinese New Year (Spring Festival). My online and face-to-face Chinese interviewees— around 150, representing many professions and different ages and immigration statuses—regard the Christmas celebration as entertainment only. Nevertheless, surrounded by a large population of Christians and widespread Christmas celebrations and work holidays, both of these outsider groups have gradually invented new customs to build their own Christmas.

According to Ament’s analysis of the 2000–2001 NJPS data, the populations of both Reform and “just Jewish” groups, who are thought to be much more flexible in interpreting and enacting Jewish tradition, are experiencing a rapid increase, while those of the Orthodox and Conservative groups are consequently declining (2005). In this article, I primarily discuss Jews who identify themselves as Reform or “just Jewish.” To many of these North American Jewish families (which may include non-Jewish members)—especially those living in New York City—Christmas means going to a movie theater and enjoying dinner at their favorite Chinese restaurant. This emerging custom is depicted in Brandon Walker’s 2007 video Chinese Food on Christmas, which has been seen by more than 1,780,000 viewers on YouTube alone. The video spoofs Brandon Walker’s dull life at Christmas, when because of his Jewish identity, the only things he can do are go to a movie theater and eat Chinese food like other Jews.

If forced to choose either the movie or the Chinese food, the Chinese dinner seems to be more significant. Jews may not always go to films, but Chinese food is indispensable on this special vacation day. As Ferrir commented online, “We come here [to eat Chinese food] every Christmas. It’s my treat to my family” (Poole 2005). Meanwhile, BSide wrote on his blog that he and his friend Jash spent more than three hours looking for an open Chinese restaurant in the Los Angeles area, and at last they had to order take-out Chinese food. B-Side complained of the closed restaurants, “Point is, no Chinese restaurant with ‘Cohen’ in its name can be closed on Christmas in a Jewish neighborhood of a stereotypically Jewishy city. IT’S JUST NOT ALLOWED” (2007). In some cases, when those Jewish people move out of the United States, or even New York City, the difference between the local Chinese food and that of their hometown will make them homesick. Mooselet complained online of the Chinese restaurants in Australia, as she missed the flavors of New York, where she grew up (2008). To many Jewish people who do not strictly keep traditional kosher foodways, Chinese food has become an inseparable part of a Jewish Christmas.

But why is Chinese food involved in this new—distinctly unorthodox—Jewish tradition, rather than some other ethnic food— and why is Christmas different from other Christian holidays? Besides the simple fact that Chinese restaurants are seemingly open all the time, some promising explanations are certain features of Chinese food and Jewish people’s concerns, including Jewish identity, acculturation, and community solidarity.

Connections between Jewish and Chinese Food

Although Chinese food is a central part of the Christmas tradition for many less conservative Jews, especially those in New York City, the tie between these American Jewish people and Chinese food continues past Christmas. Chinese food and Chinese restaurants have become a part of their everyday life in many parts of North America. As Kim Vo reported on Mercury News on Christmas Eve 2006: “‘When Jews are 3 years old—from the time they’re ready to eat real food—they go to Chinese restaurants,’ declared Alan Sataloff, CEO of the Albert L. Schultz Jewish Community Center in Palo Alto. ‘It’s either matzo ball soup or won ton soup.’” Jessica Carew Kraft claims that many Jews have effectively ritualized the Chinese meal and made it an integral part of modern Jewish life in America. Indeed, she noted, “Many Jews say they mastered chopsticks before they learned the Hebrew alphabet” (Kraft 2002). In a culinary arts forum, Mizducky commented that her parents took her to the local Chinese restaurant for the first time in 1958, when she was two years old (2008).

Why do these Jewish people like Chinese food? Two Jewish sociologists, Gaye Tuchman and Harry Levine, note some possible reasons, although they do not differentiate groups of Jews by their denominational affiliations. One explanation is the specific ways that Chinese food is prepared and served, which help Jews and their children to find Chinese food more attractive and less threatening than other treif (non-kosher) foods. Chinese restaurants also rely on some ingredients, such as garlic and chicken, that are familiar to Eastern European Jews, and Chinese cuisine does not mix milk and meat. In addition, the similar injustices of anti-Semitism and racism against Chinese, and the formerly low position of Chinese people in American society, made Jews feel safe and comfortable in Chinese restaurants (Tuchman and Levine 1993, 388–92).

Moreover, according to Tuchman and Levine, Jews in the twentieth century understood Chinese restaurant food as a cosmopolitan and urbane symbol. For many Jews in New York City, eating in Chinese restaurants signified that they were not provincial or parochial Eastern European Jews, not “greenhorns” or hicks, but American—more specifically, open-minded, modern New Yorkers (Tuchman and Levine 1993, 392–4). What is more, as Tuchman and Levine note, many second- and thirdgeneration Jewish immigrants identify themselves as modern American Jews, or New York Jews, by getting together to eat Chinese food to reminisce about the “soft and gentle flavors of the past,” since “eating Chinese” became an established New York Jewish custom, a part of daily life and identity for millions of Jews (1993, 394–402).

In a similar vein, Donald Siegel explores the Jewish-Chinese culinary connection and the reasons why many Jews are interested in eating Chinese food. His findings are similar to those of Tuchman and Levine, but Siegel particularly focuses on similarities between kreplach and wontons and emphasizes the proximity of Jewish and Chinese immigrant communities in New York City between 1880 and 1920. He argues that shared neighborhoods may have resulted in shared culinary experiences and the transmission of recipes (Siegel 2005). Siegel also creatively attributes Jews’ culinary adaptations to ancient Jewish communities of China, particularly the Kaifeng Jews in Henan province, China. He describes a student of his from China, whom he suspects may be a descendent of the Kaifeng Jewish community because his surname is Lee (Lee and Jin are thought to be surnames that replaced original Jewish names). The student grew up without eating pork or shellfish, and on special occasions, his family cooked lamb stew with onions and peppers, a dish thought to be a traditional Sephardic meal with origins on the Iberian Peninsula (Siegel 2005).

Jewish Christmas and Chinese Food

Although the above reasons are convincing explanations for why Chinese food is popularly accepted by many Jewish people, they still fail to answer my earlier questions: why is Chinese food involved in this Jewish tradition, rather than some other ethnic food, and why is Christmas unique? In other words, why do an increasing number of Jews recognize Chinese food on Christmas as their own tradition—and why do some Jewish people even protest outsiders’ invasion of this tradition? As Adam Gerard remarked online, he has seen many non-Jews (primarily Christians) at the movies and Chinese restaurants on Christmas, which makes him and his Jewish friends angry at the “greed” of Christians who are not satisfied with their own tradition. These interlopers cause theaters to be packed and restaurant waits longer, which ruins the Jewish tradition and “holiday.” To his Christian friends, Gerard suggested, “You stick to your presents, and we’ll stick to our Chinese food and a movie. Everyone will be happy. Please?” (2004)

Tuchman and Levine would argue that the underlying reason that Jews “eat Chinese” is to create a new Jewish identity in the New World, an identity that cannot be confused by mainstream Americans, even if the religious tie is loose in these Jews’ daily lives. Lia Lehrer, a young Jewish writer and blogger, actually defined American Judaism specifically in terms of Chinese food and a movie: “As minyans and minyans of Jews gather in local Chinese restaurants and celebrate the day with egg drop soup and moo shu tofu and rent V for Vendetta, they’ll be practicing the newest branch of Judaism: American Judaism.” Lehrer juxtaposed Christmas with Hanukkah and other traditional Jewish holidays, concluding that the holiday Chinese dinner functions as a central American Jewish tradition: “We have sedarim on Passover, we eat latkes on Hanukkah, and, most importantly, we eat Chinese food on Christmas” (2007). Nonetheless, a Jewish Christmas—related to Chinese cuisine—is clearly different from the Christmas celebrated by Christians, and also distinct from the deliberate non-celebration of those Orthodox or Conservative Jews who do not recognize Christmas at all.

So why do less conservative American Jews celebrate Christmas in this particular way—and why do they continue celebrating in this way? The answer may lie in the dilemma some Jews face: whether to acculturate to the American mainstream or maintain their distinct ethnic and religious identity. In Christmas at Shalom Hunan, an eight-minute interview video shot in 2004, many interviewees (all are Jewish except one) reported that they like Christmas, and some said that they exchange Christmas gifts with their Christian friends (Padmewan 2007). An elderly Jewish woman pointed to the change in attitudes toward the Christmas tree from her generation to her children’s and grandchildren’s generations. Decorating a Christmas tree in her childhood brought scolding from her rabbi father, but her children and grandchildren, although they maintain their Jewish identities, celebrate Christmas as well as Hanukkah and have their own Christmas trees. As time passes, more Jewish people may acculturate into the American mainstream of Christmas holiday celebration.

Nevertheless, many Jews also express explicit hesitation to this acculturating process, and some intend to deny this process. To many American Jewish families, with far-flung adult children living far from their parents, the Christmas vacation is a convenient time to get the whole family together. Scheduling a family gathering during Christmas, however, makes some Jewish families—particularly those with strict religious beliefs—feel “a vague sense of guilt,” since they are afraid of being recognized as celebrating Christmas (Rich 2007). To release this tension, these Jewish families “often repeatedly remind each other that ‘we’re not celebrating Christmas, it’s just a convenient time to have a family get-together’” (Rich 2007). This hesitation may even explain why Jewish people choose to use Chinese chopsticks when they are eating Chinese food, rather than asking for forks and knives in Chinese restaurants as many other Americans do, especially in the western United States (Li 2002, 339–343): they actually intend to display their religious and ethnic difference from mainstream Americans, primarily Christians.

This dilemma of acculturation is also illustrated by Jews’ choice of Chinese food. As Tuchman and Levine argue, Chinese food in the past acted as a tool to assist them to become Americans or New Yorkers— but this effect can be extended to other cuisines, if those foods are viewed as similarly cosmopolitan. Many Jewish people mention in their blogs or online comments that they eat or will eat Vietnamese food on Christmas, instead of Chinese food (for example, Andrea 2008, L. 2007, Modern Girl 2008). This flexibility indicates an evolving sense of what it means to be a cosmopolitan American. Some scholars, such as Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Heilman, regard this developing but continuous cosmopolitan ideal as an integral part of Jewish identity. They contend that Jewish people, especially those after the first or second generation in this country, are a people without a national home, since Israel was founded in 1948, decades after many European Jews had arrived in the United States. These contemporary American Jews consider their modern identity cosmopolitan, identifying themselves as “world citizens” (Cohen 1984).

Foodways and American Jewish Identity

Foodways always display and create identity, in both past and modern societies. Michael Owen Jones asserts that “eating practices reproduce as well as construct identity,” suggesting that by eating Chinese food, Jewish people not only represent themselves as Jews and cosmopolitans, but also are shaped by Chinese food (2007, 130). As I mentioned above, Siegel points out the similarity between kreplach and wontons. Tuchman and Levine also observe similarities between traditional kosher cuisine and Chinese food. These similarities make Chinese food acceptable to most Jewish people, but at the same time, by eating Chinese food on Christmas Day, Jews become outsiders to mainstream American culture. Paradoxically, eating Chinese food on Christmas both identifies Jews as American and prevents them from completely acculturating. A few characteristics of the American Jewish practice of celebrating Christmas with a Chinese meal mark Jews’ dual identity as simultaneously exotic and acculturated to American society. Both the celebration and the identity it helps to build are 1) nontraditional or exotic, 2) enacted in public, and 3) explicitly secular.

The traditional main course in most American families on Christmas is turkey, which is not a part of Chinese cuisine. In Bob Clark’s 1983 comedy A Christmas Story, a Christian family orders duck at a Chinese restaurant after a neighbor’s dogs steal their Christmas turkey. In Clark’s movie, eating Chinese food on Christmas is funny and ridiculous, and it only happens in extraordinary circumstances. Indeed, Chinese restaurants are still exotic—especially on the cozily domestic Christmas holiday—in the minds of many American people. A commenter on Ian McNulty’s blog article “Traditional?” about the Jewish Christmas tradition wryly remarked: “I think this was actually popularized more when A Christmas Story came out—Dinner eaten by the dogs? Head for a Chinese restaurant!—and has been transformed into a Jewish thing” (Liprap 2008).

For many Jewish people, however, the Chinese restaurant is also a symbol of acculturating to the American ethnic mainstream: going to a Chinese restaurant makes Jewish Americans feel not Jewish, but white. In Philip Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, Alex Portnoy remarks on the relation of Jewish and Chinese: “To them [Chinese people] we are not Jews, but white—and maybe even Anglo Saxon. No wonder they can’t intimidate us. To them, we’re just some big-nosed variety of WASP” (90). Moreover, the Chinese are the only ethnic group wishing many American Jews “Merry Christmas,” which reminds them of their acculturated American identities. Aaron regards this formality as a memorable part of celebrating the holiday at a Chinese restaurant:
The best part of my family’s Chinese-food-on-Xmas tradition is that every year as we’re exiting the restaurant filled with outwardly Jewish-looking Jews (usually featuring a rabbi or two, as well), the restaurant staff never fail to wish us all a Merry Christmas. I look forward to it each year. The probably Buddhist Chinese servers wishing the rabbis and congregants a Merry Christmas. It’s American; it’s brilliant (2009).

Being a Jew and being an American are compatible in the minds of many Jews, and the compatibility is displayed and fulfilled in Chinese restaurants.

A second characteristic that confirms American Jewish dual identity is the public location of the Christmas celebration. Eating at a Chinese restaurant and watching a movie in a theater are both non-domestic activities, while most American Christian families prefer a private family celebration at home. Pleck considers the family-based tradition as America’s way to integrate newcomers (as well as the rural poor) and socialize them as American citizens, which ultimately promoted national unity (2004, 46). Nonetheless, the public nature of Jewish Christmas practices are private and familyoriented in some senses. Since a majority of Christians celebrate at home during the Christmas season, formerly public places— such as streets, restaurants (especially those owned by non-Christians), and movie theaters— become a temporary “private” area. As blogger Bill Sobel noted, even the usually noisy and crowded casinos in Atlantic City are practically empty on Christmas, except for Jews, Indians, and Asians (2006). Chinese restaurants in many regions have only Jewish customers on Christmas, which creates a temporary Jewish space (Walker 2007). In addition, eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day is not a personal activity, so much as a family or ethnic behavior: an ethnic custom or ritual implying Jewish acceptance of the American family-based idea.

The third characteristic—an explicitly secular, “everyday” approach to the holiday—marks the contradiction between Jewish Christmas and traditional American Christmas observances. Eating Chinese food is not an event limited to Christmas for most Jews, but rather a common, ordinary feature of everyday life. A Jewish interviewee of mine, who describes herself as not religious, tells me that her family in New York goes to Chinese restaurants every Sunday. They eat chow mein, wonton soup, eggrolls, fried rice, sweet-and-sour chicken, and kung pao chicken every weekend—and also on Christmas. But most American Christians eat Christmas dinners that are distinct from their everyday dishes. Turkey with all the trimmings is definitely not typical for an ordinary meal, but prepared for Christmas (and Thanksgiving) only (Schlechter 2007).

Jewish people do not typically elevate Christmas above other ordinary days, but conversely, a dietary style that regularly embraces Chinese food reduces the importance of one Jewish New Year tradition. Tuchman, Levine, and especially Siegel have emphasized that the wonton is similar to the traditional treat kreplach. Kreplach is usually served with a holiday meal, whereas wontons—serving many American Jews as a substitute for kreplach—is always available in Chinese restaurants. Hence, the symbolic and ritualistic significance of kreplach in Jewish culture is unexpectedly weakened by the secular and regular availability of wontons.

A Chinese Christmas—with Jewish Customers

The interaction between Jewish and Chinese people not only constructs a New World Christmas tradition for some Jewish groups, but also shapes the holiday customs of Chinese Americans or Chinese living in the United States, especially owners and employees of Chinese restaurants. While Jewish Christmas practices boost the business of Chinese restaurants and serve to demarcate owners and workers as identifiably “Chinese,” the interaction between these two ethnic groups also reshapes the identity of Chinese people in the New World into “American Chinese” or “Chinese American.” Due to their marked racial features and skin color, Chinese acculturation in North America has been a long and difficult odyssey, even more than for Jewish people. In addition to racial differences, religious beliefs have motivated exclusion and discrimination against Chinese people. Chinese people who converted to Christianity have historically enjoyed more acceptance from American society (Carnes and Yang 2004).

For many Chinese restaurant owners and their employees, however, the Jewish Christmas tradition unintentionally postpones or hampers their religious practice. To cater to these Jewish customers, Chinese restaurants near large Jewish communities regularly keep open during the whole Christmas season, unlike many other local restaurants, especially those in the suburbs, which close for the holiday. As Andy Wong, owner of a Chinese restaurant in Seattle named Sea Garden, remarked, “We want to keep our customers happy, we don’t want to miss this day” (Wong 2006). Simon Zeng, another restaurant owner, mentioned that his restaurant stays open until 3 a.m. to cater to more customers on Christmas Day (Wong 2006). The owners and staff—many Christian—keeping these Chinese restaurants running on Christmas are unable to celebrate this holiday like most of the American public and are left outside of the nationwide celebration.

While this growing Jewish tradition hampers the religious acculturation of some Chinese, it does serve to promote a Chinese element within the Christmas celebration. The Kung Pao Kosher Comedy is one of the best examples: “Kung Pao Kosher Comedy started it all in San Francisco, mixing comics and Chinese food for an annual December event that has grown from one stand-up comedy showcase to eight. Then Chopshticks followed suit in Palo Alto. Now Meshugenah Christmas is making its debut” (Vo 2006). This type of comedy event, held in Chinese restaurants such as the Ming and New Asia restaurants in San Francisco and also in New York City, actually combines the two features of a Jewish Christmas: Chinese food and a light entertainment (similar to a movie). Since the show is performed in the restaurant, the newly emerged Kung Pao Kosher Comedy makes the Chinese restaurant a multiethnic and cosmopolitan place, where the provincial Chinese—both the people and culture—disappear. By sharing the comedy, the Chinese owners, workers, and any Chinese customers also become part of a joint, secular American Christmas celebration. Cosmopolitan Jewish identity therefore promotes the birth of a cosmopolitan Chinese and Chinese restaurant culture.

In addition to the comedy shows, some Chinese restaurant owners have introduced traditional Chinese lion dance troupes on Christmas, even though the lion dance is typically performed during the Chinese New Year celebration in January or February (Wong 2006). This innovation brings traditional Chinese cultural meanings into a fundamentally Western tradition, but it also indicates that some Chinese in America may have accorded Christmas the same cultural connotation as Chinese New Year or that they are gradually regarding Christmas as containing the same meaning.

Finally, Jewish dietary preferences—particularly on Christmas—have greatly influenced the menu of Chinese restaurants in North America. Jewish people, especially seniors and middle-aged people, prefer Cantonese dishes to other regional cuisines of China, such as the spicy food of Szechuan and Hunan (Mortart 2006). Although some Chinese restaurants frequently introduce new dishes, many Jewish people, even young people, stick to their preference for Cantonese food (which also happens to be more kosher) and refuse the suggestions of waiters (Padmewan 2007). These entrenched dietary habits actually narrow the range of Chinese regional cuisines available to the Jewish community and encourage restaurant owners to adapt and develop more “American Chinese” dishes, rather than bringing in more typically Chinese foodways.

As many researchers have noted, food plays a central role in Chinese life and culture, and the Chinese restaurant is the symbol of China and Chinatown to many foreigners and to Chinese themselves (Simoons 1991). Hence, this acculturating process of Chinese restaurants implies the emergence of a new Chinese diaspora in contemporary North America, promoting the transformation of Chinese people into Chinese Americans. Through the interaction between some subgroups of Chinese and Jewish people, cosmopolitan Jews trigger the cosmopolitan feelings of Chinese and stimulate them to identity themselves as insiders in their adopted country.

Communication between Ethnic Cultures

Generalizing about the Christmas activities of either Jewish or Chinese American remains premature, with further research needed. Not all Jews go to Chinese restaurants on Christmas; some prefer to stay at home with their families or keep strictly kosher at home or in Jewish restaurants, rather than substituting Chinese food. It is also possible that the simple availability of Chinese restaurants is the only reason that non-Christians like Jews choose Chinese food on Christmas; if there were other ethnic restaurants available around Jewish neighborhoods, Jewish people might switch from Chinese to other ethnic food. But according to my review of blog entries, comments, and online articles, I believe that longer hours of operation could not give birth to a tradition, let alone keep it alive over a considerably long period. People need more reasons and passion to create and maintain a tradition.

The sheer quantity of articles and comments about Jewish activities on Christmas indicates that the tradition of Chinese food on Christmas has existed historically, contemporarily, and functionally. As Noyes notes, there are “three traditions”: tradition as a communicative transaction, tradition as a temporary ideology, and tradition as communal property (2009). When traditions are created by more than one cultural group or expand beyond a national border, the interaction between two groups or cultures will not be simple or superficial, but complicated or deep. In the case discussed in this article, I would like to consider the communication between Jewish and Chinese groups in a broad, comprehensive, and cultural way, rather than at the individual and economic level—even if I am taking a risk in doing so.

It is clear that the developing tradition of Chinese food on Christmasis shared by a small group of people—less conservative Jews and workers in Chinese restaurants— rather then embraced as an accepted custom by either all Jews or all Chinese in the United States. In contemporary North America, interethnic and interracial acculturation is significant and sensitive issue. A. L. Kroeber provides an insightful definition of acculturation:
Acculturation comprises those changes produced in a culture by the influence of another culture, which result in an increased similarity of the two. The resultant assimilation may proceed so far as the extinction of one culture by absorption in the other, or other factors may intervene to counterbalance the assimilation and keep the cultures separate. When we consider two cultures bombarding each other with hundreds or thousands of diffusing traits and appraise the results of such interaction, we commonly call it acculturation (1923, 425).

The case of Chinese food on Christmas presents an example illustrating how cultural assimilation or ethnic acculturation is accomplished by the efforts of active people of small groups representing different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. The process is communicative, ideological, artistic, and unique. As Zilla Jane Goodman, a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, remarked in an online article, a Chinese repast on Christmas was not something she “practiced growing up Jewish in South Africa. The trend appears to be a uniquely American phenomenon” (Morgan 2007).


Mu Li is a PhD candidate in the Department of Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada. His research centers on ethnicity, diaspora, and online community, with a current focus on Chinese in Newfoundland.

Paradoxically, eating Chinese food on Christmas both identifies Jews as American and prevents them from completely acculturating. A few characteristics of the American Jewish practice of celebrating Christmas with a Chinese meal mark Jews’ dual identity as simultaneously exotic and acculturated to American society.


Blogs and Other Online Sources

Aaron. January 19, 2009. Comment on From Flanken to Fortune Cookies: Jews and Chinese Food on Christmas, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Ament, Jonathon. February 2005. American Jewish Religious Denominations. 2000–1 National Jewish Population Report Series, North American Jewish Data Bank, (accessed January 22, 2011).

Andrea, Cousin. December 25, 2008. Comment on Christmas Means Chinese Food, (accessed March 2, 2009).

B-Side. December 25, 2007. L.A. Chinese Dining on Christmas: A Modern Travesty, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Gerard, Adam. December 28, 2004. Chinese Food and a Movie: The Jewish Christmas, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Jackel, Molly. December 21, 2005. Wonton Christmas, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Kraft, Jessica Carew. May 19, 2002. Don’t Ask, Just Eat, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Lehrer, Lia. June 15, 2007. Seinfeld, Jdate, and Chinese Food: New Definitions of American Judaism, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Liprap. December 24, 2008. Comment on Ian McNulty, Traditional? (accessed March 2, 2009).

Mizducky. March 14, 2008. Why Jews Like Chinese Food, (accessed April 2, 2009).

Modern Girl. December 5, 2008. Comment on The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Mooselet. December 29, 2008. Comment on Christmas Means Chinese Food, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Morgan, Ryan. December 17, 2007. Holiday Traditions: A Lo Mein Christmas, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Mortart. August 29, 2006. The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Padmewan. December 17, 2007. Christmas at Shalom Hunan, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Poole, Lisa. December 25, 2005. Chinese Food is a Popular Choice of Holiday Dinner, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Rich, Tracey R. 2007. What Do Jews Do on Christmas? (accessed April 3, 2009).

Sobel, Bill. December 25, 2006. What Do Jews Do on Christmas? (accessed March 2, 2009).

Vo, Kim. December 24, 2006. Oy, Christmas Tree! Chinese Food, Jokes a Respite for Jews, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Walker, Brandon Harris. December 1, 2007. Chinese Food on Christmas, (accessed April 4, 2009).

Wong, Brad. December 23, 2006. A Growing Christmas Tradition—Chinese Food, (accessed March 2, 2009).

Published Sources

Carnes, Tony, and Fenggang Yang, ed. 2004. Asian American Religions: The Making and Remaking of Borders and Boundaries. New York: New York University Press.

Cohen, S. M. 1984. American Modernity and Jewish Identity. New York: Tavistock.

Heilman, S., and S. M. Cohen. 1989. Cosmopolitans and Parochials: Modern Orthodox Jews in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Jones, Michael Owen. 2007. Food Choice, Symbolism, and Identity: Bread-and-Butter Issues for Folkloristics and Nutrition Studies. Journal of American Folklore 120:129–77.

Kosmin, B. A., Sidney Goldstein, J. Waksberg, N. Lerer, A. Keysar, and J. Scheckner. 1991. Highlights of the CJF National Jewish Population Survey. New York: Council of Jewish Foundations.

Kroeber, A. L. 1923. Anthropology. New York: Harcourt.

Li, Li. 2002. Cultural and Intercultural Functions of Chinese Restaurant in the Mountain West: An Insider’s Perspective. Western Folklore 61(3–4):329–46.

Noyes, Dorothy. 2009. Tradition: Three Traditions. Journal of Folklore Research 46(3):233–68.

Pleck, Elizabeth H. 2004. Who Are We and When Do We Come From? In We Are What We Celebrate: Understanding Holidays and Rituals, 43–60. Ed. Amitai Etzchi and Jarel Bloom. New York: New York University Press.

Roth, Philip. 1969. Portnoy’s Complaint. New York: Random House.

Schlechter, Aaron. 2007. The Great American Christmas Book. New York: Overlook Press.

Siegel, Donald. 2005. From Lokshen to Lo Mein: The Jewish Love Affair with Chinese Food. Lynbrook, NY: Gefen Books.

Simoons, Frederick J. 1991. Food in China: A Cultural and Historical Inquiry. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Tuchman, Gaye, and Harry Gene Levine. 1993. New York Jews and Chinese Food: The Social Construction of an Ethnic Pattern. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 22(3):382–407.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 37, Fall-Winter 2011. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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