A few years ago at her confirmation hearings, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan was being grilled by Senator Lindsey Graham about the Christmas Day bombing attempt on a Detroit-bound airliner.
“Where were you on Christmas Day?” Graham asked, setting up his line of questioning.
Kagan understood the direction he was going and attempted to avoid his queries.
“That is an undecided legal issue,” she responded.
Graham persisted. “I just asked you where you were on Christmas?”
A sparkle appeared in Kagan’s eye. She laughed out loud.
“You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant,” Kagan quipped.
This story brought about a lot of laughter around the U.S. — not to mention the Senate chambers — but it’s also worth investigating. What has brought Jewish and Chinese people together over the Christmas holidays? There are many compelling reasons, one of which is that both Jewish and Chinese people don’t celebrate Christmas. Second, both groups have traditional obsessions with family and food.
However, perhaps it is more than our Jewish food DNA that has encouraged a meaningful and satisfying Jewish-Chinese relationship. Historically, China has had a positive relationship with Jewish people. During World War II, Shanghai saved many Jewish people fleeing persecution and death from the Nazis. It was an open port, so people did not need a visa or passport to enter the city. Second, righteous non-Jews in Europe, such as Chinese Consul-General Dr. Ho Feng Shan, issued thousands of visas for Austrian Jews between 1938 and 1940 against the orders of the Chinese ambassador in Berlin.
Also, China played a role in the creation of the State of Israel, with the help of a Jewish adventurer who also changed the history of China.
In November 1947, the United Nations was considering the creation of a Jewish state. In order for the State of Israel to be created, the five-member Security Council had to approve the resolution being presented to the General Assembly, but China, one of the five, was threatening to veto it.
A hero of the Chinese campaign against the Japanese during World War II, who was a known figure and senior advisor to President Sun Yat-sen, approached the head of the delegation. The general persuaded the delegation to abstain. The Security Council voted approval and the Partition Resolution was sent to the General Assembly, where it passed. Modern Israel was created.
The general who persuaded the Chinese not to oppose the resolution was not Chinese himself — Morris Abraham Cohen was a Jewish adventurer born in Poland in 1887 and raised in London.
He grew up in the impoverished East End of London. A bright young man, he was easily bored and was always getting into mischief. His family sent him to reform school in Canada, but to no avail — he continued to get arrested.
Cohen drifted through the Canadian west and became friendly with the local Chinese population. He liked Chinese cuisine and the Chinese outlook on life. One day Cohen stopped in a Chinese restaurant and realized the owner was being robbed. He beat up the thief and immediately became a local hero. The Chinese people embraced him as one of their own. In turn, Cohen joined the local chapter of nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen’s political movement and started to learn Chinese. He eventually moved to China and became a political force to be reckoned with, even heading the Chinese Secret Service. His nickname? “Two Gun” Cohen.
So from the streets of Shanghai to the storefronts of shopping centers around the country, Jewish people gravitate toward our Chinese friends because we have a history that goes beyond the plate. But let’s be clear, the plate is a great place to start, so when Christmas rolls, get out those chopsticks and celebrate Chinese food. After all, you never know where it will lead you: Perhaps to a life of great adventure or one of the highest offices in the land. If nothing else, you just might get a good fortune. Who can argue with that?