DEERFIELD – Why are North Shore movie theaters packed on Christmas Day with Jewish people who crowd into Chinese restaurants for dinner afterward? Turns out this ritual dates back many years, according to Rabbi-Cantor Nancy Diamond Landsman.
“Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas dates back at least as early as 1935 when the New York Times reported on a Chinese restaurant owner who brought Chow Mein on Christmas Day to the Jewish Children’s Home in Newark,” said Rabbi-Cantor Landsman. “Over the years, Jewish families and friends would gather on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Chinese restaurants across the United States to socialize and to banter, and to reinforce social and familiar bonds.”
She continued, “You know, not many places used to be open on Christmas day, which is why some say this is another reason many Jews flock to the movie theaters and Chinese restaurants. Today, even though more businesses are open on Christmas, this enjoyable tradition for Jewish people to go to the movies and eat Chinese food still remains for many Jews.”
The rabbi-cantor noted that Brandon Harris Walker even wrote a song about Jewish people eating Chinese Food on Christmas.
“There are some serious reasons why Jews have made it a custom to go to Chinese restaurants on this Christian holiday,” she said. “The decade of the 1880s saw over a million and a half Jews immigrating to the United States (the most popular port of arrival was New York). Many Chinese moved to the cities, creating ‘Chinatowns’ that often butted up against Jewish neighborhoods.”
She continued: “The Chinese food of the time, Chow Mein and Chop Suey, contained an amalgam of ingredients with which Jews were familiar, such as onions, garlic, celery, and other vegetables,” said the cantor. “Even pork and shrimp were often disguised in the heavily chopped concoctions served to Jewish diners. Pork, wrapped and hidden in a wonton, reminded Jews of their mother’s kreplach. Chinese food was a relative bargain. In the 1930s, one could have a full meal in a Chinese restaurant for about 30 cents.”
“The Chinese also had no history of anti-Semitism,” explained Rabbi-Cantor Landsman. “Eating Chinese on Christmas is something that still helps preserve group bonds by encouraging socialization and bonding of several generations of family members who sit together at the round table
She gave a sermom on this topic during a Shabbat service at Congregation Ahavat Olam in Deerfield last December. The reform congregation began in 2012, including some members from Am Shalom in Glencoe where she served for 23 years. The congregation is a diverse group of empty nesters, interfaith couples and others who sit on big arm chairs and couches in an informal setting. They meet at Christ United Methodist Church, 600 Deerfield Road in Deerfield on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.
“I’m the only one who officiates, and I can make a change at the spur of the moment on whether I should do prayers in Hebrew or English,” said the spiritual leader. We host potluck dinners, and everyone is encouraged to participate musically and creatively. We’re looking to increase our membership, as we see value in the uniqueness of the congregation.”
Rabbi-Cantor Landsman is educated in clinical pastoral work with a background in social work gerontology. “I would like to do more with hospice patients, and the Jewish Chaplains Organization,” she said.
Despite her busy schedule, she’ll take Christmas day off to join Ahavat Olam’s Annual Day at the Movies and Chinese Dinner.
“Depending on the movies playing, we will either go to AMC Northbrook Court 14 or Renaissance Place Cinema this year,” said Rabbi-Cantor Landsman. “We want to give people many options of movies to see. Advance reservations are requested for those who are interested in joining us for dinner (again at Szechwan Kingdom). Non-members are welcome, and we already have a lot of people signed up for dinner.” To join in on the fun visit Congregation Ahavat Olam.
The tradition continues, and you never know who you might run into on December 25 from across the Lazy Susan. Landsman said: “When a senator asked Justice Elena Kagan where she was on Christmas, she said in her Supreme Court confirmation hearings: ‘You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.’ ”
Editor’s note: This story originally ran in December 2015, but the tradition continues!