NEW YORK — One cultural cliché I’ve never understood is the “sad Jew on Christmas.” Growing up in the United States, where Christmas is a national holiday, one can easily enjoy this seasonal event in a manner devoid of religious connotation. (Indeed, this is so much the default position that some Christians have what seems an increasingly quixotic “put the Christ back in Christmas” campaign within their own community.) It takes no work for Christmas to be exclusively about fat men distributing gifts, eggnog and stringing pleasant lights on trees.
Personally, I love Christmas. From my point of view, it’s an entirely opt-in situation. Even if you ignore it completely, you still get a day off school or work. The colorful decorations can be magical, the specialty cakes and cookies are delicious, many of the old movies and cartoons are delightful, and the music is the best — especially when you remember that most of the classic tunes were written by Jews.
In America, Jews get all of the Christmas benefits and none of the tsuris. As our gentile friends worry about big family gatherings or how to keep kids well-behaved during a midnight service, we’re left to chomp on panettone (an Italian specialty that I can’t recommend enough) and watch one of several different versions of the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (my vote is the 1970 one directed by Ronald Neame starring Albert Finney, which I know puts me in the minority, but clearly you can see I’m not averse to taking unconventional stances here!).
But even if you disagree and find the choke of Christonormativity horrifying, you will still need something to do on December 25. And I recommend the classic: some Chinese food and a trip to the movies.
If you live in New York City (or will be visiting) I’ve got some suggestions. Let’s start, of course, with the food.
There are many places that serve kosher Chinese food in Brooklyn and Queens (hats off to the fabulously named Cho-Sen Gardens out in Forest Hills), but personally I feel that if you are going to do Chinese on Christmas you should really go all the way — to Chinatown.
Manhattan’s Chinatown, if you hit the right corner on the right night, can be so wonderfully photogenic you’ll feel like you are on a movie set. (The corner of Pell St. and Doyers St. is particularly magical. If there’s some snow, fuhgeddaboudit.) There are two locations that boast kosher vegetarian menus. Because life is funny, they also have names that are extremely similar.
The other day I made a trip down to do a little sampling. I first visited Bodhi, also known as Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, on 77 Mulberry Street. As with many restaurants since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there is a makeshift outdoor seating area, but since it was not crowded I went inside. The maître d’ asked to see my vaccination status and ID, which was righteous. Though all restaurants in New York City are supposed to do this, not all do.
Bodhi has a small menu, with some specials, but they’ve also got access to dim sum, which, if you’ve never had it, is a bit like tapas or mezze plates. Some of the larger Chinatown palace-style restaurants load up carts filled with different small portions, and you can point to what you want as they make their way past your table. At Bodhi, though, there is a paper list you check off (which they soon replace so you can buy more and more and more.)
I ordered three small things. First was a bowl of the hot and sour soup (which wasn’t on the dim sum menu, but I saw it on the dinner menu, so we worked something out), a plate of three fried Cantonese dumplings, and an order of steamed taro dumplings.
Within seconds someone came with a ceramic pot of oolong tea. Heaven only knows why this always tastes so delicious in a Chinese restaurant but I can’t seem to recreate it at home. The hot and sour soup (with some kind of meat substitute) was pretty damn good. The vegetables were crisp and it was just spicy enough without being too strong.
The Cantonese dumplings were light and crispy on the outside, and I liked that there were some peanuts inside with the chopped cabbage, celery, and carrots. (I guess don’t order this if you have peanut allergies.) After a few bites, though, it did get bland. No sauces were provided, and it really needed a little something. I asked for some spicy mustard, and was promptly brought a tiny bowl, and, WOW, this was the high octane version, even putting Irish Colman’s mustard to shame.
The steamed taro dumplings were a mushy, lifeless disaster. Some extremely salty dipping sauce could have helped it, maybe, but by then I wasn’t interested. Pass.
After a little stroll in the neighborhood, I went to Columbus Park, a terrific spot on the perimeter of Chinatown adjacent to where the city courthouses are. This can sometimes make for some amusing juxtapositions. In the same park you’ll see old timers practice tai chi, play traditional Chinese instruments, or challenge one another to a round of Go, while others from all over the city wait for judgment before The Law or maybe a quick civil marriage ceremony.
When I had room for more grub I walked to Buddha Bodai (again, not to be confused with Bodhi), which is also known as The Original Buddha Bodai Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, at 5 Mott Street.
From a presentation standpoint, Buddha Bodai was the clear winner. Though everything at Bodhi was fine, it did have a dash of that anything goes, Wild West vibe one can sometimes associate with Chinatown. (Let’s be frank, one cannot cross Canal Street without women asking if you want to buy a genuine Gucci handbag for $20.) Everything at Buddha Bodai was newer, brighter, cleaner, and the staff was more attentive. There was also a large bottle of hand sanitizer on every table. They, too, asked for vaccination cards at the door. How do you say baruch Hashem (thank God) in Cantonese?
Then I ordered the food: this time just a bowl of hot and sour soup and some fried dumplings. The soup here was simply not as good. I can’t really express why. It wasn’t bad, but it had a slightly soapy aftertaste. Also, the tea may have been in a fancier, diffuser-type glass pot, but it was a little too bitter.
The fried dumplings took forever. I had some emails to send so I wasn’t too annoyed, but the place was fairly empty. Go figure. When they finally came, they were delicious and crispy on the outside, though maybe a smidge too oily on the inside. Blessedly, the waiter brought some tangy dipping sauce before I even asked.
Take this information and make your own call about where to go. The prices are about the same, and reasonable for New York.
If you do not keep kosher (or, as was the case for many of our grandparents, you keep kosher except for Chinese, because it’s all a big mystery) this does open some doors. One place I recommend is Joe’s Shanghai, in a new location at 46 Bowery. A very similar menu can be found at Joe’s Ginger at 25 Pell Street. At one point the two restaurants had the same owner, but this appears to no longer be the case. Nevertheless, you come to either spot for the soup dumplings (a mix of treif and savory broth inside a doughy pouch) or the Peking duck. It’s tremendous.
If you want to go extremely old school, hit Wo Hop at 17 Mott Street. It’s been around since 1938 and has all the American Chinese classics: chop suey, egg foo young, lo mein, chow mein, General Tso’s chicken. You are guaranteed to see some uniformed cops on break down there, no matter the time. (The restaurant is downstairs, but there is also an annex next door at 15 Mott Street and, for now, outdoor seating.) Wo Hop isn’t the oldest place in the neighborhood — that would be the Nom Wah Tea Parlor, which has been around for over a century. It looks spectacular from the outside, but I’ll be honest: the food is disgusting. They manage to make a glass of water gross. Avoid.
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Lastly, if you only want a quick, cheap bite and aren’t keeping kosher, one of the most terrific spots in all of New York City is the eloquently named restaurant “Fried Dumpling.” There you will find fried dumplings. For a dollar and a quarter an old Chinese woman will put some dumplings on a paper plate for you. Usually five, but maybe more if she likes you, maybe less if she does not. Nearby are thin, rough paper napkins, plastic forks, and a few squirt bottles of spicy or savory sauce. I recommend a dash of both. (Both sauces are in reused plastic containers of Sriracha, but neither are Sriracha. Chinatown makes its own rules.) You then go outside and eat your dumplings in the cold, maybe hovering over a garbage can. Then you go back in and order more. It’s incredible. (I have personally taken Israelis here, away from any eyes checking for kosher certificates, and I have watched their knees buckle from ecstasy.)
After dinner comes the movie.
There will be crowds on Christmas. The AMC Theatre on West 84th and Broadway will likely have the highest number of Jews per capita, if you want to spend this night with coreligionists.
I strongly recommend one of two movies in theaters now. The first is Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s outstanding new version of “West Side Story,” and the other’s the Alana Haim-starring romantic comedy “Licorice Pizza.” There’s no Jewish connection, but the remake of “Nightmare Alley” is a good movie for grownups, too.
If you want to go all-in on Christmas, though, Greenwich Village’s IFC Center is showing the 1947 goyish classic “It’s A Wonderful Life.” It’s a little corny, but it works, particularly in a theater. Film Forum, in the same neighborhood, is showing Federico Fellini’s 1957 hit “Nights of Cabiria,” the original “hooker with a heart of gold” movie that I haven’t seen since college. Maybe you’ll see me there. Save me some eggnog.
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