At last count by the Pew Research Center, close to one out of every three Jewish-American households put up Christmas trees. “Identities can be very complex,” a pro-tree columnist for The Jewish News reasoned. (Aren’t you glad I didn’t say “opined”?)
For many of us living in the other 68 percent of homes, though, the situation doesn’t seem so complex: It’s a matter of Yiddishe pride to shun trees, wassailing, roast geese and plum pudding, although the interdiction obviously doesn’t extend to "The Christmas Carol," which taught me everything I know about the holiday.
Still, I can rarely resist participating in some good-ole Yuletide grousing. The object of my aggravation is what’s now known as “Jewish Christmas,” which refers to eating Chinese food and seeing a movie on Dec. 25.
As I’ve previously written, there is cultural significance to the practice that I fear isn’t recognized by the non-Jews who’ve embraced it. Increasingly, “Jewish Christmas” is how people who celebrate Christmas are celebrating Christmas, presumably because it seems like a pleasant alternative to ham at Aunt Hettie’s.
It’s not enough that a smaller percentage of Jewish Christmas adherents are Jewish these days. As the concept gets trendier, more of the Chinese food being bought for the holiday is coming from non-Chinese restaurants. Last year, for example, Butcher & Bee, Kwei Fei and Josephine all served Chinese-American menus on Christmas Eve.
To be clear, dipping into the Cantonese classics was hardly a malicious act of cultural appropriation. All three of those restaurants are owned by caring people with personal ties to the Jewish Christmas tradition, and I’d bet my entire pile of Hanukkah gelt that they only intended to provide a fun holiday diversion.
But you’ve lived through enough of 2020 by now to know there is no fun this year without a very dark lining. In this case, it’s the plight of immigrant Chinese and Chinese-American restaurant owners, who suffered the consequences of the pandemic months earlier than their fellow restaurateurs.
“All restaurants are hurting, and my heart goes out to them, but no other restaurants were targeted from the beginning,” says food historian and filmmaker Grace Young, author of "Stir-Frying to the Sky’s Edge." “People thought, ‘If I go to a Chinese restaurant, I could catch COVID,’ so as early as January businesses saw a drop of 50-80 percent.”
Young in March launched a video series "Coronavirus: Chinatown Stories" chronicling the small businesses straining to stay open in New York City’s Chinatown. She’s since partnered with The James Beard Foundation on an Instagram-based campaign to save Chinese restaurants across the country.
“I think that people are going to be shocked when the pandemic is over and they walk into Chinatown and their favorite restaurants and stores are not there,” Young says. “In their place is going to be a big Trader Joe’s or CVS. Chinatown needs our help desperately.”
Safeguarding Chinatown is a priority for Chinese food advocates because it’s a historic center of diversity. The neighborhood’s restaurants have also had to cope with notably harsh restrictions on indoor dining.
An operator charging $6.50 for a bowl of noodles likely can’t afford to station an employee outside so patrons don’t leave without paying, Young points out. Elaborate heating systems are out of the question.
Yet Young stresses that independent restaurants in every state have suffered. That’s not because potential customers aren’t fond of the food: P.F. Chang’s, which in October opened its first New York City location, reports its takeout and delivery business are “performing strongly” during the pandemic.
In Young’s view, it’s more likely that customers are staying away from local Chinese restaurants because of “the anti-Chinese rhetoric of calling (COVID-19) the China virus or Kung flu.”
“The mom-and-pop Chinese restaurants have been decimated,” she says. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Which is to say, should you decide to participate in Jewish Christmas this year, regardless of your faith, this is the year to order from a Chinese-owned restaurant.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find opportunities to support other restaurants that might serve General Tso’s in connection with Christmas. But if you don’t eat Chinese food frequently, at least consider buying your holiday meal from a Chinese-owned restaurant. It’s in the Jewish Christmas spirit.
(And if you need help getting in the Jewish Christmas mood, I hope you’ll join me; Young; Gefilteria co-founder Jeffrey Yoskowitz; writer Jennifer 8 Lee and filmmaker Cheuk Kwan at 7 p.m. Dec. 21 for a panel discussion titled "Jews and Chinese Food: A Christmas Love Story." The Museum of Food and Drink event is free, but you have to register in advance to receive the Zoom link).