Even though I have no religious or family connection to Judaism, my first years of elementary school were at a Jerome Lipman Jewish Day School. Chinese food has always been a principal way that my Chinese-American father has connected with his culture and its consumption has definitely defined itself as a tradition within my family. I’m always surprised and a little delighted at the scale that cultural mash-ups can take on.
One paper, by Hanna Miller, even goes as far to say that Chinese food is the ethnic cuisine of the American Jew, arguing that they identify more with Chinese food than the Eastern European food of their immigrant ancestors. And two sociologists, Gaye Tuchman and Harry G. Levine, investigated the historical and cultural reasons for the Jewish Chinese culinary axis in their 1992 paper Safe Treyf [pdf].
So why is it that chow mein is the chosen food of the chosen people? Among the theories posited:
- Chinese food does not use dairy (unlike the other two main longtime ethnic cuisines in America, Italian and Mexican), so when many more Jews kept kosher, Chinese food was easier to eat.
- Chinese and Jews are among the two largest (if not the two largest) non-Christian immigrant groups, so they followed similar calendars. This is where Chinese food on Christmas may stem from, since Chinese restaurants were open.
- The Chinese use of garlic, rice and chicken were familiar to an Eastern European palate.
- Chinese food was not too expensive and involved family-style sharing.
- Chinese food represented a way to become cosmopolitan.
- Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where a significant number of the Jewish immigrants from around the turn of the century lived, bordered each other. Indeed, the Eldridge Street Synagogue, one of the oldest Jewish houses of worship in the United States, is now squarely in Chinatown these days. (It even has an egg roll festival.)