"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Christmas, Jews, And Chinese Food

Apparently Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas. An article in The Atlantic (12.23.14) explains the phenomenon:

For many Jewish Americans, the night before Christmas conjures up visions, not of sugar plums, but 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…

“Chinese restaurants were the easiest place to trick yourself into thinking you were eating Kosher food,” Ed Schonfeld, the owner of RedFarm, one of the most laureled Chinese restaurants in New York, said. Indeed, it was something of a perfect match. Jewish law famously prohibits the mixing of milk and meat just as Chinese food traditionally excludes dairy from its dishes.

Growing up in New Brighton, Connecticut, an unusually ethnically divided town of recent Polish immigrants and old-line WASPs who had come to America with the Pilgrims – kielbasa and steamed pudding to put it in culinary terms.  There were some Jews – Finkelstein, the jeweler, Katz the furrier, and Schwartz the clothier – but they kept pretty much to themselves.  They worshipped at the El Israel Temple on West Main and played golf at the Fielding Glen Country Club in Wethersfield which they had built and now owned.

All of us Christians, however, wondered what they did for Christmas.  It couldn’t possibly be a day like any other – the Hartford Courant, scrambled eggs, or a walk in Walnut Hill Park. America was Christian and always had been, and New Brighton was particularly proud of its Christian heritage.  A life-sized manger scene was set up every day in front of City Hall, the Daughters of the  American Revolution reenacted the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, every shop on Main Street was Christmas-themed, Perry Como’s White Christmas was piped to the Town Square, and the bells of every Catholic, Methodist, and Presbyterian church rang out loud and clear on Christmas morning. 

Jews in New Brighton, we thought, after so many years must have assimilated at least some of the American Christmas heritage, so even if they didn’t believe in Jesus Christ, they would surely do something Christmassy.  That showed how little we knew, how culturally divided the city was, and most importantly our ignorance about Judaism, or Jews in America..

However we were still surprised that Jews ate take-out Spicy Chicken with Walnuts on Christmas, especially because the only Chinese restaurant in New Brighton in those days was the Peking Duck a 10-seater store front on Arch Street which had been raided a number of times by the Department of Public Health. Why would they ever choose gnarly cat meat (or so my mother insisted) over roast turkey and ham, sweet potatoes, sausage stuffing, and ricotta pies? 

Christmas dinner was an event at our house.  The roast turkey and gravy played second fiddle to the antipasto and lasagna.  Mince and pumpkin pies were store-bought - American pro forma add ons to the ricotta pies, canolis, sfogliatelle, and bugnuts. Creamed onions, sweet potatoes, and oyster stuffing gave way to corn fritters and mushroom sausage dressing.  Pralines, Siena nougat candy, anisette, and espresso brought the curtain down.

All of New Brighton celebrated Christmas.  The Hennigers strung colored lights on every hedge and yew.  The Carltons Santa themed every year with sleighs and elves.  People from as far away as East Hartford and Wethersfield came to look at the manger scene on the Pantuccis’ front lawn.  Every church’s bells rang out Silent Night and Away in a Manger, and St. Mark’s Orphanage raised the biggest Christmas tree in Hartford County, a gift from the Knights of Malta.

We all wondered what went on inside the El Israel temple and could only imagine dark Old Testament rites of sacrifice and Oriental ritual; but we left it at that. Outside of a few bar mitzvahs, none of us had ever been invited in. 

All well and good, but Chinese food on Christmas? Where on earth did that come from? And shouldn’t we at least offer the Finkelsteins a place at our table?

My Aunt Leona always included Lou Layman for Christmas dinner; but he was always the odd duck, never quite knew what to do at grace or whether or not he should eat the baked eel that my mother had prepared.  Although he had married my Aunt Philomena, he had been born and raised on the Lower East Side, spoke with a honking, nasal Brooklyn accent, and dressed like an undertaker.  My aunt was always careful to give him a place at the center of the table, but winced as dabbled at the eggplant and turned down the eel.

Lou, after many Christmas dinners at my aunt’s house, had become used to Italian American Catholic customs; and we all tolerated him out of respect for her.  Because he never fit in, we all wished that he would disappear and never come back; but Leona was adamant. “We need to welcome Jews in our midst”, she said. “They have been labeled Christ-killers for far too long”.

Lou Layman would certainly have preferred a dinner with his own friends, eating Chinese food on Arch Street or on Baker Road in West Haven, but he did make the effort to fit in comfortably with us.  Nevertheless, he was always the odd man out, and although we never said it, we hoped that for one Christmas dinner at least, he would demur. 

Today’s secularization of Christmas make our Christmas dinners at Aunt Leona’s seem hopelessly archaic.  Christmas has been stirred into the multi-cultural stew. ‘Happy Holidays does indeed make sense in my upscale Washington neighborhood where dark Jewish houses with no Santas, Christmas trees, or crèches outnumber those with ornamental displays.  It is hard for me to say ‘Merry Christmas’ when my server, masseur, or waitperson could as easily be a Muslim from Yemen as a Christian from Dubuque – more likely in fact.

America was a Christian country, founded on Protestant, Puritanical principles, based on the precepts of the Enlightenment, and consolidated thanks to a Christian expansionism.  It still is Christian, although far less austere than in the 18th century.  Spanish-American Catholics have diluted the old-time religion and the immigration of Africans and Asians have further ‘freshened’ our national religious character.

I am happy to live in a diverse urban environment.  Washington has large Latino, Asian, and African communities and perhaps because of my years of international travel, such an unusual but familiar mix makes the city interesting. 

Nevertheless, I miss the days of my childhood when ‘Merry Christmas’ was the greeting for all.  City Hall, the New Brighton Green, New Brighton High School, and the Connecticut River Valley Hospital were all decked out in lights, Santas, and mangers. There was something important about the collective Christian experience of Christmas that I now miss. We didn’t have to skip a house when we went caroling.  There was no wondering about the faith of the families who lived on Lincoln Street or whether they understood the symbolism of O, Little Town of Bethlehem. We were all in a communal celebratory mood, and whether Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or Congregational, we all shared the holiday spirit and our belief in the miraculous birth of Jesus Christ.

I feel uncomfortable today, scanning everyone and deciphering clues to nationality and religion before ‘Merry Christmas’.  Most Christians don’t bother, and use the universal ‘Happy Holidays’; but I cannot.  I would rather err on the side of mistaken religious identity than keep my Christian sentiments to myself.  Most immigrants know this and do not feel offended by an errant ‘Merry Christmas’ and are certainly not offended.  It is I who, in an age of ‘inclusivity’ and ‘diversity’, has felt alienated from my cultural roots.

I feel that it would should offend no one if America were to take the religious shackles off and celebrate Christmas openly again.  Most Christians in Washington note the Muslims worshipping at the Mosque on Friday or the Jews at temple, but consider it a part of our particular American cultural fabric.  Let us all bring on the prayers, the devotion, the music, and the symbolism.  There is plenty of time and place for secular multiculturalism; but not at Christmastime.

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