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My Jewish Christmas

I did what Americans Jews are supposed to do on Christmas. I ate Chinese food. Not alone, but with three other members of my family: my two younger brothers and my sister-in-law who was born in Mexico and raised in a religious Roman Catholic household. I've often gone to St. Mary's in San Francisco with Adelina on Easter Sunday, but in many ways she's more Jewish than anyone else in the family. She's the one who wants to celebrate Hanukkah every year. She also always wants to celebrate Three Kings Day, which falls on January 6 next year and that commemorates the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus. Any excuse for a party, especially with dancing. 

To eat Chinese food with my family I drove to San Francisco in the rain. Not a problem. Only drizzle and light traffic. The food arrived late. My brother, Daniel, who picked up the food from Koi Palace in Daly City, said there was a long line and that most of the customers were Chinese.

After he arrived, we ate in the garage beneath the house where my brother, Adam, and his wife, Adelina, live at Ocean Beach, a neighborhood that has recently become a destination for Russian immigrants. We all wore masks, except when we were eating and drinking, both hot tea and tequila, and we also did the social distancing thing. The food was mostly vegetarian, in deference to Adam who never eats meat. There was one spicy chicken dish with peanuts and there were potstickers and a noodle dish.

Why Jews traditionally eat Chinese food on Christmas is a subject that has been written about and discussed for decades. You might have heard of it.

Some say it's because Chinese restaurants are always open on Christmas, and because Jews don't have anything better to do on Christmas than eat chop suey, wonton soup and fried rice. Another story has it that the Lower East Side, the old New York neighborhood where Jews lived for decades, was next to Chinatown and therefore convenient. Also, there's no dairy in Chinese cuisine. In the old days and in observant families today, Jews would not mix meat with dairy. With the exception of pork and shellfish, a great deal of Chinese food appeals to religious Jews, as well as to Jews who don't attend synagogue or observe Jewish holidays. Dishes like wonton soup are nearly identical to Jewish style chicken soup with kreplach, which are boiled dumplings filled with meat or vegetables. 

In my own family, we celebrated Christmas with a tree and presents in the 1940s and 1950s. When I was growing up, we did not go to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas, though my father had two friends who were Chinese and who owned restaurants. We ate at one of them on Sunday afternoons because we loved wonton soup, egg rolls, spare ribs and steamed whole fish with ginger and scallions. Also, because going out gave my mother a day off from cooking for her husband and three sons. 

My brother, Adam, explained midway through the meal in the garage that there are three kinds of Jews: those who proclaimed their Jewish identity at every opportunity; those who hide it or deny it; and those who neither proclaim nor conceal, but who are so obviously Jewish there is no need for either. Adam considers himself so obviously a Jew that there's nothing to be said on the subject, though he can also pass for Turkish and Egyptian, a Buddhist and a Muslim, which comes in handy when he works as a private investigator or PI. He's a kind of Jewish Everyman.

As usually, we didn't talk about Israel. What's there to say that hasn't already been said a zillion times before? I don't have anything new to say on the subject. We did talk about food and about restaurants, including Sammy's Romanina Steakhouse in New York, and Moishes in Montreal, where Adam went to college and that was founded by Moishe Lighter, an immigrant to Canada from Romania.

At our Chinese feast on Christmas this year, Adam had the last words, which weren't in English, Yiddish or Hebrew, but in Spanish, which he speaks like a native and that he translated as, "We will help one another." Isn't that what families are supposed to be for, and don't we all belong to the family of humanity that inhabits the planet?


  1. lauracooskey January 3, 2021

    That was pleasant. Thank you!
    The other thing you can do on Christmas if you want to eat out is to try the casinos. Not so much an option in San Francisco or New York, but around here, it’s a good opportunity to check out the restaurants attached to these often 365-day businesses. I’ve found that if you can get away from the cigarette smoke often wafting in from the other functions, you can enjoy a decent meal. (Not sure how many of them are fully functioning in Covid times, though.)

  2. Jonah Raskin January 3, 2021

    Thank you, Laura. I will see if the Casino in Rohnert Park is open and has restaurants up and running.

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