The Mitzvah of Eating Chinese Food on Christmas

The following was posted by Rabbi Justin Goldstein of Congregation Beth Israel in his regular Friday congregational message. Enjoy!  

 

“The old will become new and the new will become holy,” -Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook

merry christmasOn the surface, Jewish culture can appear resistant to change. But when we look deeper we see that for all of our long history, Jewish culture has been a dynamic, evolving, ever-changing living organism. In part because of the historically transient nature of Jewish life, always moving from one nation to another, and in part by being influenced by those dominant cultures, the ability to adapt has proven itself tantamount to Jewish survival. Even while so many aspects of Jewish life have remained consistent – Shabbat, Kashrut, holidays, our language – the customs which have arisen over generations have been different based largely on geography and the dominant culture of the era.

One of the most fascinating and pervasive contemporary American observances of Jewish culture is what some have lovingly dubbed ‘Jewish Christmas’ – the custom of dining in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve and seeing a movie in the theater on Christmas Day.

The origin of this custom is very practical, in a society dominated by Christianity and Christmas, there are not too many restaurants which, in the past, remained open on Christmas. The Chinese population being primarily Buddhist, their establishments would remain open on December 25, and Jews living in those places would take advantage. Similarly, when most businesses are closed on Christmas Day, movie theaters have typically remained open and it provided a good excuse to catch a flick when most of the city is shut down for the holiday. But what emerged out of this very practical custom was a camaraderie and unifying spirit of what it means to be Jewish in a Christian society, and one so heavily impacted by the commercial aspects of the Christmas season.

To deepen the “Jewishness” of this custom debates have arisen in many Jewish communities – do you eat Chinese food on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? When we now have a greater variety of Pan-Asian cuisine, must one decidedly choose Chinese, or would Thai or Japanese suffice? And now that many more restaurants than just those serving Chinese are open on Christmas Eve, does it really matter in what type of restaurant a Jew in America chooses to dine on Christmas? Is the point to celebrate our otherness? To rise above the loneliness some experience by not being a part of Christmas celebrations? Perhaps to simply have an excuse to eat mu-shu?

Whatever the origin of the custom or the motivation to participate, the practice has become so pervasive that it is, even if not exclusively practiced by Jews, a uniquely Jewish American custom.

Inspired by this, two of my friends and teachers, Rabbis Rachel Kobrin and Rick Brody, a number of years ago created a satirical take on what discussions of this custom may have looked like had it emerged during the time of the Talmud. Reading it has become a part of my personal Jewish Christmas observance. It is called Masekhet (Tractate) Chopsticks. I hope you enjoy and find it entertaining.

However we each decide to respond to Christmas – whether we participate in the sacred rite of mu-shu and wonton, whether we finally see that movie we’ve been to busy to catch, whether we celebrate with Christian friends and family, or whether we ignore it altogether, “Jewish Christmas” is one of a myriad of examples of the dynamic nature of keeping Jewish life relevant wherever and whenever we happen to live.