Jews. Chinese Food. Welcoming China.

September 9th, 2020 § 0 comments

Yes, Jews are very fond of Chinese food. Some believe that affection started at the time of the great 1900’s migration of Jews to New York from Eastern Europe. The lower east side neighborhood housed the incoming Jews in tenements and Chinatown was a short walk away. Chinatown food was cheap and tasty. Jews were not disdained because of their struggles with English. The Chinese were having their own problems. When HG was growing up, every neighborhood in the boroughs had Chinese restaurants. Chow mein and chop suey (heavy on the corn starch) were featured. HG and teenage Brooklyn girlfriend would feast on chow mein after a movie date. Dinner (Won Ton Soup, Chow Mein, Almond Cookie dessert, much tea) cost 50 cents. Mimi Sheraton, the distinguished food/restaurant writer, has recalled with nostalgic pleasure the comfort of celery, onion and bean sprout chow mein during her young Brooklyn days. HG/BSK’s first date more than 57 years ago was, of course, at a Chinatown restaurant: BoBo’s. The very good restaurant (long closed) was owned and run by a beautiful Chinese actress. Recently, HG discovered another reason for the Jewish affinity for Chinese food. In Simon Schama’s magisterial book, “The Story of the Jews: 1492-1900”, the historian traces the hundreds of years presence of Jews in China (Marco Polo, in 1286, commented on Jewish traders in China). Schama writes that there was a community of 2,000 Jews (with a synagogue, Torah, etc.) in the city of Kaifeng during the 1600’s and before. These Jews adopted Chinese names (along with their Hebrew names) and worked at scores of occupations (there were some prominent Jewish military leaders). Jews (and the Torah) were sympathetic to Confucian teachings while retaining their own identity. The Ming Emperors welcomed Jews to their land. Schama writes: “In China, Jews were not subjected to violence and persecution, not demonized as God killers. Their synagogues were not invaded by conversion harangues. They were not physically segregated from non-Jews, forced to wear humiliating forms of identification on their dress. They were not forced into the most degraded and despised occupations, not stigmatized as grasping and vindictive, and portrayed neither as predatory monsters nor pathetic victims.” A Seng emperor welcomed Jews with these words: “Come to our China: honour and preserve the customs of your ancestors, stay here and hand them down through the generations.” Can the Jewish love of Chinese food be linked to the unconscious memories of Jewish life in a benevolent China? Possibly.

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