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Oy to the world! Rabbi discusses Jewish X-mas traditions

Chow down: American Jews have been celebrating the holiday season with Chinese food for over a century, according to a speaker at the “Chow x Judaism” event on Dec. 21.
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It’s a Christmas mitzvah!

A culinary event this Friday will dish out the details of how American Jews used Chinese food to forge their own Christmas traditions. “Chow x Judaism,” at the Museum of Food and Drink on Dec. 21, will showcase connections between Chinese grub and Jewish yuletide traditions that go back more than a century, according to a Jewish historian who will speak at the event.

“Jews lived in close proximity to Chinese immigrants on the Lower East Side and there were a lot of Chinese restaurants, so Jews started to eat out at those and other ethnic restaurants in the 1890s,” said Joshua Eli Plaut, rabbi of the Metropolitan Synagogue in Manhattan and author of “A Kosher Christmas: ’Tis the Season to Be Jewish.”

Jews patronized the eateries because they were among the few to stay open on Christmas Day, and because East Asian cuisine did not use dairy, which made it closer to kosher than say, Italian food, which often mixes meat with cheese — a violation of the dietary laws, according to Plaut.

Soon Chinese food became highly sought after among young second-generation Jewish immigrants in Brooklyn, who bent the rules even further, dropping strict food traditions in favor of chopsticks and chop suey — which might use ground pork, the historian found.

“A resident of Brownsville, New York, commented in 1928 that he observed young Jews frequenting one of the six chop suey houses lining the streets of Pitkin Avenue,” he wrote in his book. To that generation, Chinese food was both worldly and rebellious.

“It was a rebellion against the religious code of conduct of Eastern Europe, dropping the kosher dietary laws was a step towards Americaniz­ation,” Plaut said.

Ever since, eating out at Chinese restaurants has become a way for Jews to partake in an explicitly religious national holiday with their own rituals, according to Plaut.

“Every year it’s a sacred tradition. The Chinese restaurant is a place where you announced your Jewish identity,” he said.

Along with Plaut’s presentation, the event will also host a line-up of live cooking and tastings, comedy, and storytelling surrounding Asian food and Judaism.

Chef Julie Cole, who manages the Manhattan eatery Nom Wah Nolita and helped to invent the “baogel” — a mix of bao bun and bagel — will give a live cooking demo, and the museum’s executive chef John Hutt will offer tastings of matzoh ball wonton soup.

There will also be a kosher wine tasting, storytelling by food and drinks writer Beth Kaiserman, and comedy from Fumi Abe and Mic Nguyen, of the sometimes-serious podcast “Asian, not Asian.”

“Chow x Judaism” at the Museum of Food and Drink Lab [62 Baynard St., between Lorimer and Leonard streets in Williamsburg, www.mofad.org, (718) 387-2845]. Dec. 21 at 6:30 pm. $55.

Reach reporter Kevin Duggan at (718) 260–2511 or by e-mail at kduggan@cnglocal.com. Follow him on Twitter @kduggan16.
Updated 10:29 am, December 18, 2018
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