Why do Jews eat Chinese food on Christmas?

Published: The Good Men Project (December 24, 2015)

Much to my horror, I discovered earlier today that my favorite local Chinese restaurant isn’t open on Christmas Eve.

This may not seem like a big deal – heck, you could even say that I’m a bit of a scrooge for faulting the establishment – but it’s important to remember that, as an American Jew, being denied Chinese food on this holiday is a bit like a Christian hearing their family church has decided to close. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Tribe of Abraham has been enjoying Chinese food on this day for as long as human memory can record.

If you want to learn the real story, though, this piece from The Atlantic manages to explain things pretty nicely:

“The story begins during the halcyon days of the Lower East Side where, as Jennifer 8. Lee, the producer of The Search for General Tso, said, ‘Jews and Chinese were the two largest non-Christian immigrant groups’ at the turn of the century.

So while it’s true that Chinese restaurants were notably open on Sundays and during holidays when other restaurants would be closed, the two groups were linked not only by proximity, but by otherness. Jewish affinity for Chinese food ‘reveals a lot about immigration history and what it’s like to be outsiders,’ she explained.”

Of course, this wouldn’t be a proper story about Jewish culture if there wasn’t at least one Jew out there who disagreed with it. This brings me to another theory, courtesy of Josh Ozersky from Time Magazine:

“The thing to remember about Chinese food is that, besides being cheap, it is eminently suited to take out; at least three-quarters of the Chinese food I ate growing up was at home. And Jews love eating at home. We are intensely familial, home-loving and nuclear; and given that our own food is both bad and laborious (endlessly braised brisket, spattering latkes), Chinese food — varied, fatty and festive — is a better alternative in part because it’s always at hand. It’s a cheap lift; you can think of it as Jewish Prozac. And, beyond this, there is an even greater power of Chinese food in our lives, a sentimental tradition in a secular world.

Personally, I think both versions here are correct. Although Jewish and Chinese immigrants to America hail from very different geographic and cultural backgrounds, they both find themselves regarded as “outsiders” during one of the most important holidays celebrated in this country. While this isn’t solely responsible for the Jewish tradition of eating Chinese food on Christmas, it most likely accounts for its genesis; from there, the convenience, deliciousness, and family-friendly qualities of this particular fast food cuisine makes up for the rest.

Having mentioned all of this, I would like to add a third theory – namely, that Jews began eating Chinese food on Christmas because they realized just how funny this would appear to be. After all, comedy is just as much a Jewish tradition as gefilte fish, and Jews love nothing more than setting up a good-natured joke about cultural pluralism. This is why, in my mind, the most important event in the history of Jewish Christmas occurred less than five years ago. It occurred when President Barack Obama appointed Elena Kagan, a Jewish judge, to the Supreme Court:

“When [Senator Lindsey] Graham questioned her about the Christmas Day bomber, Kagan started to answer seriously until he cut her off, asking her instead what she was doing on Christmas Day.

‘Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,’ Kagan said, prompting the hearing room to erupt in laughter.”

If I could turn the Graham-Kagan exchange into a ringtone, I would do so in a heartbeat. That uproarious laughter at the end was, in its way, the perfect coda to a moment that captures so much about the American Jewish experience. Even though we don’t share the same religious traditions as most of our countrymen, we are overjoyed at the privilege of living in a nation as wonderfully diverse and accepting as this one. The mere thought of it warms my heart and fills my soul with joy… and if that isn’t the Christmas Spirit, I don’t know what is.

Autistic Reflections on Thanksgiving

Published: The Good Men Project (November 26, 2015)

On Thanksgiving Day 2015, I am thankful for the following.

Growing up, it seemed like everyone rejected me as an oddball. If I didn’t correctly read the thoughts and emotions people attempted to communicate through their facial expressions and body language, I was weird and rude. When I talked too much about subjects that the people around me didn’t find interesting, it was because I was “Motormouth Matthew.” Anytime I drew attention to how I was being bullied because of my unorthodox mannerisms and tics, I was admonished for being a “tattle” and told that I should “just ignore” my tormentors.

Make no mistake about it, things haven’t improved that much for autistic people. Every day I see news stories about someone with Asperger’s Syndrome being picked on by his or her peers. Most of my close autistic friends continue to live in fear that their jobs and personal relationships will be cruelly, unexpectedly terminated. If anyone says that things are good for autistic people today (much less ideal), they are either deluding themselves or determined to diminish other people’s problems.

Having said all of that, one thing is undeniably true: Unlike my early years, now I have a language with which I can discuss being autistic with others.

Without question, the worst part of growing up on the spectrum was not being able to explain my situation to other people – or, for that matter, to myself. My formative years were spent believing that there was something intrinsically wrong with me, that I was ineffably different and would never be able to connect with other people. It’s bad enough to be marginalized and lonely, but the emotional brutality of that condition is exponentially worsened when you genuinely believe yourself to be a freak. Perhaps there was the incidental advantage of me learning to empathize with others who feel like outcasts, but I would like to believe I could have acquired the same empathetic capacity without the traumatic experiences.

Either way, there is little question that both I and other autistics like me now have a vocabulary that allows us to understand ourselves and demand that others accept us on our own terms. The struggle for full social equality is still more ahead of than behind us, but this is an important first step. It means that, instead of feeling like aliens, we can embrace our own unique corner of the human experience.

For this I am endlessly thankful, and this is the thought I will keep in my mind and heart as I celebrate Thanksgiving with my family.

Why I’ve Never Thrown Myself A Birthday Party

Published: Good Men Project (April 4, 2015)

Like so many Millennials, Matthew Rozsa isn’t sure he sees the point in throwing birthday parties.

It recently occurred to me that, in less than five weeks, I will be turning thirty years old. May 8th, to be exact – I was born on the same day that New Coke was released into the global marketplace with infamously lackluster results. It was also the 40th anniversary of V-E Day, the 101st anniversary of Harry Truman’s birthday, and (for specialists in arcane history) the 27th anniversary of the day in which Vice President Richard Nixon was nearly murdered by an angry mob in Lima, Peru.

Considering my introspective nature, I’m a little surprised that the ramifications of this impending milestone have taken so long to set in. Then again, this probably has something to do with another unusual aspect of my personality – namely, that I’ve never thrown myself a birthday party.

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The birthday party is a more or less universal ritual. Different cultures obviously have their own ways of celebrating the anniversary of when one began the adventure of life, but there are few that don’t at least make note of the event. Yet I’m hardly alone among Millennials that I know in taking a casual approach to the traditional birthday party, as observed here in the West. More and more often, it seems to me, people our age prefer a casual approach – meeting up with a few friends, drinking some beer, watching good movies.

The birthday party is a more or less universal ritual. Different cultures obviously have their own ways of celebrating the anniversary of when one began the adventure of life, but there are few that don’t at least make note of the event.

For the past five years I’ve had a very distinct ritual of my own. It was May 8, 2010, less than two months after the messy conclusion to a long-term relationship and a little more than two months before I began my Masters program at Rutgers University – Newark. Needless to say, I was in a state of great flux, and so what I desired more than anything at that time was some equanimity. Consequently I met up with a few very close friends – Adam, Tommy, Brian, Andy, Sean, Jen, Tommy M. (as distinguished from the first Tommy) – ordered a huge bucket of fried chicken, and watched an episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

That was it. A simple little ritual that I have thus far reenacted without exception for every subsequent year. It may sound silly, but in the interim that has passed since I have lived a packed life: I’ve completed my MA degree, made significant headway in my PhD program, become a published author, and met countless fascinating people as significant others, professional colleagues, and friends. After my older sister had a child, I even became an uncle – an entirely novel experience for me.

I guess what I’m saying is that, when your day-to-day life is packed, it’s easy to view the ordeal of organizing and throwing a birthday party as just one more exhausting burden.

I guess what I’m saying is that, when your day-to-day life is packed, it’s easy to view the ordeal of organizing and throwing a birthday party as just one more exhausting burden. By simply surrounding myself with a few good friends and unwinding, I not only avoid turning a celebration of my life into another stressor, but pay respect to what I really want on my birthday, which is some time to myself. When I was a little child, I liked “fun” in its archetypal manifestations, and as a teenager I became more ambitious in my party plans. As an adult, though, it seems so… well, frivolous.

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Of course, I may have to make an exception this year. When one of my friends invited me to a 30th birthday bash she threw for herself with characteristic panache, I began idly chit-chatting about whether I should do something special for myself this time around. That said, I wonder if there are more people out there like me. After all, our generation is one of the most put-upon in recent history. We came of age in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Great Recession, spend more of our time worrying about making ends meet than any other group of Americans since the Great Depression, and thanks to the digital revolution, we are better informed about everything that’s wrong in the world around us than any of our predecessors.

In short, we are a generation that is chronically stressed out. Am I alone in finding birthday parties to be more trouble than they’re worth?

10 Reasons Christmas Kicks Ass — By a Jew

Published: mic (December 16, 2013)

In the name of full disclosure: I am Jewish, and I love Christmas.

It’s pretty hard not to. How can you not feel all warm and fuzzy inside during a holiday that encourages people to spend time with their loved ones, embrace a whole canon of fascinating holiday folk lore, and create beautiful works of art?

That’s why I always find it so strange to hear that annual complaint about a “war on Christmas.” Yes, the holiday has been secularized to a large degree, but it’s not like that prevent religious Christians from celebrating in their preferred way. So long as they’re allowed to maintain their traditions, what is so terrible about expanding the yuletide cheer to those who might otherwise miss it?

Make no mistake, Christmas is still large and in charge. Here’s why.

1. Christmas moves people to rein in their worst instincts.

This one is hard to quantify, but I’ve noticed it nonetheless — people seem to be more cheerful, kind-hearted, and trustworthy during the Christmas season than any other time of year. This tendency (like most of the items on this list) applies not only to observing Christians, but even people who don’t directly observe the holiday. Good will seems infectious.

2. It gives kids the chance to be in charge.

Just as the Roman holiday of Saturnalia (which inspired many modern Christmas rituals) encouraged role reversal among its participants, there seems to be an informal rule in which children get to play boss around Christmas time. They get to miss school, eat all of the candy and junk food their hearts desire, and (of course) draw up elaborate wish lists of gifts. Speaking of which …

3. The gifts! The gifts! The gifts!

Of course this article would lose all credibility if I didn’t mention the presents. As a Channukah observer myself, I didn’t miss out on this tradition … and boy is it fun! This doesn’t mean that we should succumb to the crass materialism rightly derided by the likes of Dr. Seuss, but at the same time, there is nothing wrong with enjoying the thrill of anticipation and gratification of a perfect gift received.

4. The catchy Christmas music.

Most holidays have a sub-genre of music, but I feel safe in speculating that none are as extensive, varied, or rich as that created to celebrate Christmas. Whether you’re listening to classics like “Jingle Bells,” awe-inspiring pieces like “Carol of the Bells,” modern rock earworms like “Wonderful Christmastime,” or dark comic masterpieces like “Don’t Shoot Me Santa,” the radio is a great place to go during the holidays.

5. The great Christmas cartoons.

Whether it’s the Rankin/Bass stop motion classics, the immortal animated adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas, or more recent fare like the SpongeBob SquarePants Christmas special, there is something perfect about the synthesis of holiday themes with the art of animation. After all, there has always been something otherworldly about stories told through animated media; what better match for Christmas?

6. The colors!

This might seem abstract, but it deserves mention that there are few holidays as aesthetically pleasing as Christmas. Most have their preferred palette — Valentine’s Day with its reds and pinks, the Fourth of July with red, white, and blue, Halloween with orange, yellow, and black. But Christmas manages to include ALL of them.

7. The legendary Christmas movies (non-cartoons).

Last pop culture entry, I swear! What I particularly love about Christmas movies is how they range so dramatically in quality and tone. You get the ones that conjure up all of the sentimental and rebellious feelings of childhood, like Home Alone; the ones that tug at your heartstrings no matter how much time passes, like It’s A Wonderful Life; and the ones that are hilariously awful, like Jingle All The Way. If you find yourself bored during Christmas season, you must not own a television.

8. The libations.

What do eggnog, berry sangria, angel’s delight, and the holiday hopper have in common? Simple: They all keep the toes warm and the spirits loose at Christmas parties throughout America. If you’re over 21, this requires no further elaboration (and if you’re under 21, or planning on driving, lay off the booze).

9. The Christmas food!

I can deny it no longer: I love being invited to my friends’ Christmas parties not for the carols, the good cheer, the relaxing atmosphere, or even the off-chance a stray gift might land my way, but because I love Christmas food! While others rightly worry about gaining those dreaded post-Thanksgiving pounds, Christmas meals have just the right mixture of sweet (cookies, candy canes, sugar-doused products everywhere), savory (slow-cooked meats galore), and of course alcohol (see above) to make any Christmas meal truly worthy of the designation “feast.”

10. Family.

One of the best perks about being a non-Christian in a Christian society is that, regardless of your religious beliefs, the all-importance of family is so stressed on Christmas that even the biggest humbug proponent is forced to at least contemplate such subjects. Columnist Burton Hillis put it best:

“The best of all gifts around any Christmas tree: the presence of a happy family all wrapped up in each other.”

Black Friday Shopping: Why People Act Like Lunatics

Published: mic (November 28, 2013)

As Americans plan on observing Black Friday, it’s worth taking a few minutes to observe the origin of this infamous “holiday.”

Although the term “Black Friday” was initially coined in reference to an economic panic caused by financiers Jay Fiske and Stephen Gould on September 24, 1869, it was first used to refer to the shopping day immediately following Thanksgiving in the November 1951 issue of Factory Management and Maintenance. Even then, however, the title didn’t take off in usage for another decade, when Philadelphians in 1961 began using it to refer to the post-Thanksgiving consumer frenzy that had gripped their city. The rest, as they say, is history.

And what an ugly history it has been. To list some of the more infamous recent incidents:

– In 2008, a Walmart employee was trampled to death as customers stormed the store while four other shoppers, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, were injured.

– Also in 2008, two men shot each other to death at a Toys R Us after a fight erupted between the women accompanying them. Although the shooting was confirmed to have been unrelated to consumerism, the heated emotions inspired by Black Friday almost certainly played a role.

– In 2011, a 61-year-old man collapsed from a heart attack while shopping as customers passed by him either unaware of or indifferent to his condition.

– Also in 2011, a woman was arrested for pepper spraying other customers (including children) who tried to buy an XBox so she could make sure she had the first one.

Last year, a man faced charges after he was videotaped threatening to stab other customers who pushed him or his children while waiting on line at a Kmart in Sacramento.

So why does Black Friday bring out the worst in us? And more importantly, what can we do about it?

Insofar as the psychology behind Black Friday is concerned, the best explanation was recently featured in a Huffington Post article. One element at play is the “scarcity principle,” which involves people becoming instinctively obsessed with obtaining items that they believe are rare, will soon run out, or are difficult to obtain. Because Black Friday has been promoted as the ideal time to acquire valuable consumerables at low prices, it feeds into this impulse. Exacerbating it is the “social proof principle,” wherein people follow the example of large groups around them because if they see others affirming something’s value, they assume that it must indeed be good. Because Black Friday is trumpeted up by everyone else, they reason, it must indeed be worth prioritizing.

How can we handle this?

For one thing, it’s important to keep our heads on straight no matter how many people around us are losing theirs. While Black Friday may offer great deals and access to first-out-of-the-assembly line gift options, it is hardly the only opportunity consumers will have to buy the products they want at prices they can afford. Just because everyone else is chomping at the bit doesn’t mean that they have good reason for doing so. If you don’t want to feel like a cow in a herd, you can start by avoiding cattle-think.

It’s also helpful to look at the list of horror stories included at the beginning of this article. Ever since the advent of the digital age, it is impossible for people who behave like truly egregious jackasses not to get noticed and publicly humiliated as a result. No matter how tantalizing that offer may seem, or how infuriating the behavior of your fellow shoppers may be, do you really want to appear on lists like the one featured here? Shame can be a valuable tool for social management, and Black Friday is a prime case of that.

Finally, it may be helpful to remember the true spirit of the holidays we’re celebrating. As I explained in my last piece on Thanksgiving shopping, it’s easy to let dollars and cents get in the way of decency and common sense. Whether you’re celebrating the religious Christmas, the secular Christmas, Channukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, or another holiday altogether, it’s important to realize that materialism — though one of the undeniable guilty pleasures of such events — is not the ultimate point therein. If people just kept that thought in mind, Black Friday might not have such a terrible connotation.

Why Millennials Should Avoid Getting Sucked Into Black Friday

Published: mic (November 27, 2013)

According to a recent survey by the National Retail Federation, nearly one in four Americans are willing to shop on Thanksgiving. Indeed, of the 33 million shoppers expected to hit the streets tomorrow, the one anticipated to turn out in the largest numbers are those between the ages of 18 and 36 – i.e., millennials.

This is a disgrace.

When the legendary German sociologist Max Weber took it upon himself to describe the capitalist work ethic that dominated America’s socioeconomic life, he wrote of “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” one “now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.”

This sums it up the Thanksgiving shopping craze quite neatly: We live in a society where material acquisition is the foremost priority among our citizens. If millions of Americans are thus encouraged to forego the act of thankfulness in the name of crass consumerism, so be it. If countless families have a national holiday ruined because their employers force them to work, then that’s their problem. After all, they are mere human beings with families, friends, and lives that they hope can be spent in ways that don’t involve constant working. When Abraham Lincoln spoke of an ideology that was “for both the man and the dollar, but in case of conflict the man before the dollar,” he was arguing for values modern commercialists deem antiquated.

A few states are finding ways of dealing with this. In states with blue laws like Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, retailers are prohibited from forcing their employees to work on Thanksgiving, with the implicit idea being that even a morsel like a family-oriented holiday ought not to be ground up in the gears of unbridled commercialism. Unfortunately, far more have had their appetites whetted by the potential profitabilty of Thanksgiving shopping.

If millennials want to make a difference tomorrow, they can start by protesting this desecration.

Fellow PolicyMic pundit Nina Ippolito has already gotten this off to a good start, circulating the term “Brown Thursday” as a way of insulting the new prequel to Black Friday. On a more meaningful level, millennials can make a point tomorrow of not succumbing to their baser instincts. It’s not like we weren’t forced to spend all previous Thanksgivings indulging in quaint pastimes like (gasp!) spending time with our families and (shudder!) avoiding thinking about practical or materialistic considerations. Instead of taking advantage of this new trend meant to exploit workers and drain money from consumers, we should show that the Thanksgiving spirit is stronger than the uglier side of capitalism.

On a deeper level, though, we need to confront the social trends that fueled this particular fire in the first place.

Just as the spirit of Christmas was in many ways dampened by the crass commercialism that began to overtake it, so too is Thanksgiving at risk of being eclipsed by the same shopping frenzy that gave Black Friday its name. This is because, whenever an argument is presented in favor of promoting commercial considerations, there is an outspoken contingent that insists on silencing all protests. In America today there is a strong impulse to assume that anything which lines the pockets is good for society, that using the term “bottom line” as interchangeable with making money is obvious because, after all, what other “bottom line” could there possibly be?

We are indeed living the age when Weber’s old prediction is bearing out:

“Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”

Let us cast off this iron cage that is being shackled on us. To millennials: Don’t go shopping on Thanksgiving.