The Lower East Side Genesis Jews of Eating Chinese Food on Christmas

Posted on: December 23rd, 2021 at 5:04 am by

A version of this story appeared in Bowery Boogie last year, but it’s always worth a reminder given the conversations this time of year around dinner plans on Christmas for the Jewish folk.

Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas is a tradition forged long ago in the bowels of the Lower East Side.

To many turn-of-the-century Eastern European newcomers, Chinese cuisine was somewhat familiar to their own. As the Yiddish Book Center points out, both culinary styles tend to favor “chicken broth, lots of garlic and onions, vegetables cooked to a melting softness, and sweet-and-sour flavors reminiscent of those of Ashkenazic cooking.” Plus, there was a Kosher appeal of sorts. Since Chinese cuisine is light on dairy ingredients, there was little threat of breaking kashrut with mixing milk and meat.

Yet, not until 1959 would there be a specific restaurant that offered this marriage of Kosher Chinese food. At around that time, Solomon Bernstein reportedly left his father’s butcher business on Ludlow Street, where he and his three brothers worked, to start Bernstein-on-Essex. Schmulka Bernstein’s – nicknamed after his father – operated out of 135 Essex Street. Armed with the slogan “where kashrut is king and quality reigns,” the eatery was first established as a Kosher delicatessen. But in 1959, Bernstein began offering Cantonese-style favorites alongside the more traditional fare.

Sol Bernstein, Photo: Michele Clark

One of Schmulka’s granddaughters previously wrote the following about the tradition in a Bowery Boogie guest piece:

Uncle Sol, in his turn, was the originator of kosher Chinese food.  For years, Bernstein-on-Essex was the only restaurant of its kind anywhere. It attracted observant Jews from all over the globe. Like our grandfather Schmulka, our oldest uncle became a man of note, an innovator, in the small circle of Jewish observance and then, later, in the somewhat wider circle of those who look with longing toward the Lower East Side as the Plymouth Rock of American Jewish life. Despite the ups and downs of Lower East Side economics, the restaurant continued to prosper until my uncle died in 1992.

Schmulka Bernstein’s flourished for over three decades before the owners sold the family business in the early 1990s. The operation continued, but eventually went the way of Ratner’s a few years later.  Today, the original building is not even there anymore. And the ground floor is occupied by the Sons of Essex bar.

These days, the tradition is so embedded in the zeitgeist that non-Jews also participate.

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