NEW YORK – When asked at her 2010 confirmation hearing where she had spent Christmas, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan cracked, “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” The line landed on a bed of laughter. The senators didn’t need an explainer – the association has become so well-known and accepted in the United States that they easily got the reference.
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That one-night culinary stand is normally about the extent to which we consider the connection between the two cultures. But the merry month of May provides an opportunity to look closer, revealing a shared immigrant experience between the Jews and Chinese, and instances of mutual recognition, even if the two communities never much mingled.
In 1992, Congress declared May Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, upgrading it from a mere heritage week, which is how it began under the Carter administration. And in 2006, President George W. Bush – responding to the efforts of Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the late Arlen Specter – deemed May to be Jewish American Heritage Month as well. And last week, President Donald Trump, as President Barack Obama did before him, reiterated the fact that May is indeed the month to celebrate the contributions of both communities to the United States.
For the sake of narrowing down a broad, multicultural demographic – and by way of unpacking the Christmas ritual – we’re zooming in on the relationship between the Jewish and Chinese American communities. And one place where their histories dynamically overlap is on New York’s Lower East Side, the scrappy yet cool neighborhood at the bend of the East River and foot of the Williamsburg Bridge. Appropriately, May is also Lower East Side History Month, so I headed there one recent May afternoon.
The new Jewish homeland
In the decades around the turn of the 19th century, the Jewish population on the Lower East Side grew from 60,000 to 500,000, eclipsing some major European centers and heralding a new chapter of Jewish history – to which many Americans trace their roots, whether their ancestors passed through the neighborhood or not.
“This is the Jewish homeland,” says Hanna Griff-Sleven, director of the Family History Center and cultural programs at the Museum at Eldridge Street. “Even if you’re not from New York, you feel a tide here. This is where all the stories and all the writers came from that talk about that era. It’s a touchstone for most Jews.”
The Museum at Eldridge Street is a stunning, 130-year-old Neo-Moorish synagogue in the heart of Chinatown – the most visually dramatic, and unexpected, illustration of the interplay of the communities in that district.
Sitting majestically across the street from Young City Fish Balls and next to the Zhen Li Beauty Spa, the revitalized synagogue is the result of a 20-year effort and $20-million face-lift, completed in 2008. (It’s no longer the home of a congregation, but continues to host minyans on Shabbat.) A series of public programs, including class visits by predominantly Chinese local schoolchildren, recount the vibrant history of Jews in the neighborhood.
In 2001, the museum launched an effort to bring the neighbors together, creating the annual Egg Rolls and Egg Creams block party, which attracts thousands and features cultural cuisine, Hebrew and Chinese scribes, and mah-jongg tables (the Chinese tile game popular among Jewish women). The event recently added Empanadas to its title in honor of its Puerto Rican residents; this year’s festivities will take place on June 18 at 12-4 P.M.
A historical thread
The next stop is Tenement Museum, half a mile away, where visitors can experience how the communities lived when they first arrived in the United States.
The museum features neighborhood walks and tours of an 1863 building with reconstructed apartments that were home to waves of immigrants. In one, a sewing machine, dress patterns and bolts of fabric crowd a small living room, which served as a workshop for the Levine family, who emigrated from Poland and worked, like many Jewish families, in the garment industry.
An upcoming exhibit, tentatively titled “Under One Roof,” tracks the experience of three families – one Jewish, one Puerto Rican, one Chinese – who lived in the building in the latter half of the 20th century, “all of whom had some connection to the garment industry,” says David Favaloro, director of curatorial affairs for the museum.
The Jewish family lived in the building in the late 1940s and ’50s; the Puerto Rican family in the ’60s (when the area was known as Loisaida), and the Wong family lived there in the ’70s and ’80s, when Chinese immigrants populated the garment industry.
Geographically and professionally, Jewish and Chinese immigrants followed similar paths, sharing some of the same labor hardships and exploitation.
The communities overlapped a bit but rarely interacted – because of language, cultural customs and government policy: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers and wasn’t repealed until 1943. And it wasn’t until the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, which abolished quotas, that the Chinese began to settle in the Lower East Side. “That’s really when Chinatown became Chinatown,” says Griff-Sleven, of Eldridge Street. “It slowly took over blocks.”
By then, the Jewish community was growing in size and prosperity. After World War II, many flocked to Brooklyn. “The big misconception we hear is that the Chinese came and kicked out the Jewish community,” says Courtney Byrne-Mitchell, visitor services director at Eldridge Street. “They were not kicked out, they left voluntarily,” adds Griff-Sleven. “That’s the difference. Economics.”
Chinese food, an appreciation
A common explanation for the association of Jews with Chinese food on Christmas is that Chinese restaurants on the Lower East Side were the only ones open during the holiday. Others say that, despite abundant pork on the menu, the lack of dairy made it relatively easy to separate milk and meat. Some suggest that Chinese food represented the multicultural exoticism of their new home, at an affordable price, and was part of the process of integrating into the United States and identifying as an American. Either way, it’s now part of Jewish lore.
While on the Lower East Side, I also paid a visit to the Museum of Chinese in America, a modest space near SoHo and a 10-minute walk from both the Museum of Eldridge Street and the Tenement Museum.
The various rooms profile prominent Chinese Americans – like Dr. Faith Sai So Leong, the first female Chinese dentist in America, and Tom Gunn, the first Chinese American to earn a pilot’s license – along with displays that grapple with Chinese cultural stereotypes on television and film (with characters like the villainous Fu Manchu and the seductive Lotus Blossom).
The current special exhibit is called “Sour Sweet Bitter Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America.” The centerpiece is a long table, elegantly set with porcelain ware and colorful abstract ceramic figures that vaguely resemble dishes. At each setting is the profile of a prominent Chinese or Chinese-American chef, such as Cecilia Chiang, a San Francisco-based restaurateur, and Michael Tong, who brought high-end Chinese cuisine to New York. Projected videos on the wall feature the chefs reflecting on their relationship to food, family and culture.
The exhibition reveals the richness, diversity and complexity of a cuisine that, for Jews, has become merely a well-worn joke. Seeing it after visiting a Jewish heritage site and immigrant museum (and eating a delicious taro-filled sweet roll from Golden King Bakery), illuminated the profound common experiences of both communities.
The confluence of Jewish American and Asian/Pacific American Heritage months offers a chance to dive deeper. Chinese food on Christmas may be a quirky ritual, but, looking closer, it’s also an acknowledgment of a shared slice of American history.