If there’s a single identifiable moment when Jewish Christmas—the annual American tradition where Jews overindulge in Chinese food on December 25—transitioned from kitsch into codified custom, it was during Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s 2010 confirmation hearing.
During an otherwise tense series of exchanges, Senator Lindsey Graham paused to ask Kagan where she had spent the previous Christmas. To great laughter, she replied: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”
Never willing to let a moment pass without remark, Senator Chuck Schumer jumped in to explain, “If I might, no other restaurants are open.”
And so goes the story of Jewish Christmas in a tiny capsule. For many Jewish Americans, the night before Christmas conjures up visions not of sugar plums, but of plum sauce slathered over roast duck or an overstocked plate of beef lo mein, a platter of General Tso’s, and (maybe) some hot and sour soup.
But Schumer’s declaration that Jews and Chinese food are as much a match of necessity as sweet and sour are, is only half the wonton. The circumstances that birthed Jewish Christmas are also deeply historical, sociological, and religious.
The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, “Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups” at the turn of the century.