Jews and Chinese Food?

Casey Davidow

Laughter filled Persson Auditorium as New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee discussed what she described as an intimate relationship between the Jewish community and Chinese food. Lee described her talk as “stand up comedy meets academic lecture” and she gave her audience a large measure of both.

Lee explained that Jews and Chinese are the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups in the United States. Chinese restaurants are especially compatible with Jewish communities because they are open on Sundays and Christian holidays, and do not use dairy products. After World War II, when, according to Lee, Jews were feeling insecure about their place in the world, they could walk into a Chinese restaurant and not feel looked down on.

Even if Jewish Americans do have a “special affinity” for Chinese food, all of America is obsessed with it. Lee reminded the audience that Chinese food is the most pervasive food in the world — it is served in Antarctica and in space, and the Cuban Missile Crisis was actually resolved in a Chinese restaurant.

When Chinese people first immigrated to the United States they predominantly worked in factories and on the railroad. When an economic crisis hit the United States they became the scapegoats. Members of the Chinese community were attacked, lost their jobs and were pushed to self-employment. The majority of self-employed Chinese immigrants specialized in cleaning or cooking, and by the 1920s New Yorkers were described by the New York Times as “chop-suey mad.”

Sophomore Sammi Steinfeld described the lecture as “really funny” and appreciated the “interesting historical facts” that Lee included in the lecture. Lee’s lecture was sponsored by the Colgate Jewish Union and was a perfect blend of serious fact and humor.

Lee also discussed the historical origin of fortune cookies.

“[They] were introduced by the Japanese, popularized by the Chinese and eaten by Americans,” Lee said.

Lee traveled all across China and the United States to get a sense for what Chinese food is really all about, and says that she wrote her book, The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, to make people “think twice about what it means to be American.” It is safe to say that Lee accomplished her goal during this lecture. The audience was left to think about where American traditions come from, and how America really is the product of numerous cultures and immigrant groups.