A version of this story appeared in Bowery Boogie last year, but it’s still worth remembering given the conversations this time of year around Christmas dinner plans for the Jewish people.
Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas is a tradition forged long ago in the bowels of the Lower East Side.
For many newcomers to Eastern Europe around the turn of the century, Chinese cuisine was somewhat familiar to theirs. As the Yiddish Book Center points out, both cooking styles tend to favor “chicken broth, lots of garlic and onions, thoroughly cooked vegetables, and sweet and sour flavors reminiscent of Ashkenazi cuisine.” Also, there was a sort of kosher appeal. Since Chinese cuisine is light on dairy ingredients, there was little risk of breaking kashrut when mixing milk and meat.
However, it was not until 1959 that there will be a specific restaurant that offers this marriage of kosher Chinese cuisine. Around this time, Solomon Bernstein is said to have left his father’s butcher’s business on Ludlow Street, where he and his three brothers worked, to found Bernstein-on-Essex. Schmulka Bernstein’s – nicknamed after her father – operated at 135 Essex Street. Armed with the slogan “where kashrut is king and where quality reigns”, the restaurant was first established as a kosher delicatessen. But in 1959, Bernstein began offering Cantonese-style dishes alongside more traditional ones.
One of Schmulka’s granddaughters once wrote the following about the lore in a guest play by Bowery Boogie:
Uncle Sol, in turn, was the originator of kosher Chinese food. For years, Bernstein-on-Essex was the only restaurant of its kind in the world. It attracted observant Jews from all over the world. Like our grandfather Schmulka, our eldest uncle became a distinguished man, an innovator, in the small circle of Jewish observance, and then, later, in the somewhat larger circle of those who look on longingly. towards the Lower East Side as the Plymouth Rock of American Jewish life. Despite the ups and downs of the Lower East Side economy, the restaurant continued to thrive until my uncle died in 1992.
Schmulka Bernstein prospered for more than three decades before the owners sold the family business in the early 1990s. The deal continued, but eventually followed Ratner’s path a few years later. Today the original building is no longer even there. And the ground floor is occupied by the Sons of Essex bar.
Nowadays, the tradition is so ingrained in the zeitgeist that non-Jews participate in it as well.