China syndrome
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China syndrome

When does a habit become a tradition?

When does a tradition become a joke?

And when does a joke become a trend?

These are questions posed by an odd occurrence in Teaneck on Tuesday.

The habit of Jews eating at Chinese restaurants on Christmas is well enough ingrained to be the topic of at least one master’s thesis.

It also surfaced at Elena Kagan’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2010. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R.-S.C.) had asked Kagan where she had been last Christmas. “Like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,” she replied. Fellow New Yorker Senator Chuck Schumer then explained: “Those are the only restaurants that are open!”

That’s not the case in Teaneck, however, where kosher restaurants tend to stay open on Christmas.

Which only heightens the question: Why did Chopstix, the town’s kosher takeout restaurant, sell twice as much on Tuesday as it did last Christmas?

At one point, it ran out of ingredients.

According to the restaurant’s owner, Elie Katz, Chopstix put together more than 200 orders, “feeding more than one thousand people,” he said.

But with the link between Jews and Chinese food going back nearly a century (Hannah Raskin summarizes her 100-page graduate thesis at http://bit.ly/js-chin), why was this December 25 different than all other Christmas nights?

My theory: Blame Rabbi Eliyahu Fink of the Pacific Jewish Center, an Orthodox congregation in Venice, Calif.

Last Wednesday, he suggested on Twitter that people post “hilchos Christmas” – that is to say, how Jewish law would create arcane rituals to codify Christmas traditions.

An example: “Xmas that falls on Shabbos: We do not sing Jingle Bells lest one build an instrument. Yesh omrim [some say]: lest we build a sleigh.” (Posted by Rabbi Michael Bernstein, rabbi of a Conservative congregation near Atlanta.)

(More can be found at http://finkorswim.com/2012/12/23/hilchos-christmas/)

This all led Rabbis Rick Brody and Rachel Kobrin – a married couple who live in Austin – to post a tongue-in-cheek “Talmud for Christmas: Tractate Chopsticks” (http://bit.ly/js-chop) about the “the appropriate way for Jews to fully accomplish the obligations associated with eating Chinese food on December 24th/25th.”

And as that made its way around the Internet and Facebook, the Jews of Teaneck began to get hungry for Chinese food.

That’s my theory, at least.

When Katz was asked for an explanation, he replied: “I don’t know.”

But he did say that he was restocked and “ready for the Super Bowl. That’s another Jewish Chinese holiday.

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