What A Difference A Year Makes

What A Difference A Year Makes

According to the Gregorian calendar (the one you are most used to), which is based on the time it takes the earth to complete its journey around the sun, this start of the year 2017 (Happy New Year everyone!).  Although most countries follow the solar cycle, both the Jewish calendar and the traditional Chinese calendar follow cycles based on the moon (although technically lunisolar).

On January 28th of this year’s Gregorian calendar marks the beginning of the start of the Chinese New Year of 4715 (the Year of the Rooster). The current Chinese calendar had evolved over the millennium, and has had over 100 variants, and one of the more commonly used calendars has 12 months, but is actually based on a 60 year cycle. Although most people know of the 12 terrestrial signs (animals) associated with each year, there are also 12 celestial signs (e.g., Jai (growing wood), Wu (earth), Geng (metal), etc.).

Many different countries and cultures have created their own system of calculating and identifying the days that make up a year.  For instance [note: all dates based on Jan. 1, 2017], it is the year 2560 in the Buddhist calendar (it began the year Buddha passed away), in the Mayan Calendar,  Koiak 1733 in the Coptic Calendar (also called the Alexandrian calendar), Proyet (season) Sf-Bdt (month) in the Ancient Egyptian (Civil) calendar, and 3rd of Tevet 5777 in the Hebrew calendar.

What is interesting about the Hebrew calendar is that it is not the only New Year that is celebrated throughout the year.  There are four (yes four) New Years celebrated since the times of the Ancient Hebrews. The first, which provides the numbering begins on the 1st of Tishre – Rosh Hashanah, which translates to “Head of the Year.”  The second is Tu Bishevat (15th of Shevat), and is the New Year for the Trees.  Another is the 1st of Nissan, which corresponds to the holiday of Passover, and the exile of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt; all other holidays in the Torah are based on this date.  The last is the 1st of Elul, which is the New Year for the tithing of the cattle. However, there is another “New Year” of sorts, or at least the beginning of an annual restart, the holiday of Simchat Torah commemorates the annual beginning and end of the reading of the Torah.


Although diverse in many ways, the traditional cultures of both Judaism and the Chinese, there are many similarities which they both share, from the basic tenets of their beliefs to the food they eat. The “three teaching” of traditional Chinese are Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. One of the roots that these have in common with Judaism is ethics – doing what is right, and doing to others what you would have them do to yourself. These are also two of the oldest cultures in the world, and both have endured many different changes throughout their respective histories.


Although Jews may have travelled to China during earlier eras, many had probably first come to China when the Silk Road first opened during the 2nd century BCE. These were trade routes between China and Europe for the intent of trade, but also allowed for the transfer of ideologies and ideas.  There were many Jewish traders at the time, and although there is no evidence of a Jewish community in China before the 10th century AD, many historians claim that Jews may have settled in Kaifeng as early as the 2nd century AD. It is known that during the Song Dynasty (960 to 1127 AD), many Jews migrated from Persia to China, and many settled in Kaifeng [Fast Fact: The first synagogue was built Kaifeng in 1163.]. Although the city had become conquered by various rulers over the centuries, the Jews had maintained a large settlement within the city. Over the years the community changed, and had adopted many of the local customs into their own. It should also me be mentioned that this was not the only Jewish community in China; a few other smaller communities existed throughout the country as well (such as in Shanghai, Beijing, Harbin, and Hong Kong). The community began to decline after a flood ravaged Kaifeng in 1642, and some ruling Dynasties that were not friendly to Jews (or any outsiders) in subsequent years, and after the last rabbi died in 1810, no one was found to replace him. In 1914, the land that held the synagogue was sold (to the Anglican Bishop).

After a long hiatus, a resurrection of Jewish identity in Kaifeng had begun in the 1980s, even under the strict Communist rule (which does not recognize Judaism as a state religion), which had even opened a Jewish Study Center.  There are reportedly 1000 people in the city that acknowledge a Jewish heritage, but many do not practice Judaism, at least not in public. Although this was tolerated by the authorities for the past three decades, when a group of fifty people gathered to celebrate Passover last year to light the menorah, they closed the study center, removed any signs of Jewish history, and cut off any association with International Jewish organizations.

Despite the actions and position of the government itself, the Chinese people themselves do have an admiration (or at least a curiosity) of Jewish people, which are a very small minority of about 2,500 in a country of over 1.3 billion. In fact, ten Chinese Universities offer Judaic Study programs.  In these courses, only allowable books are (officially Jewish liturgy is forbidden) and even a Chinese citizen trying to perform research on the Internet will not find many resources; China has its own contained Internet, where users can only access government sanctioned websites (containing sanctioned content).

Enough History, I’m Hungry

There are many times I have enjoyed Chinese food and a movie while half of the world celebrates Christmas.   If you look back at these two cultures as they assimilated into the American way during the latter half of the 20th century, one can see signs as to why this connection had occurred.  First, both were outsiders to the majority of the populace – including religious beliefs, dress, and of course food.  Chinese food includes very little, if any dairy, which allows for an easy transformation to kosher (which does not allow the mixing of meat and dairy), and an easier conversion to kosher-style (e.g., vegetarian or fish dishes (non-shellfish, of course).

One does not merely eat “Chinese food.” The term is really a misnomer.  People from different areas have been cooking food for thousands of years, and various types of dishes, as well as preparation methods, and ingredients were prepared in different regions of the country. In fact, Chinese food can be broken into foods, or the “eight cuisines” of China: Anhui, Cantonese, Fugian, Hunan, Jiangsu, Shandong, Sichuan, and Zhejiang.  [So when you see “Cantonese Noodles” or “Sichuan duck” they are not only referring to a style of cooking of that dish, but to the region where it originated. The different styles can be attributed to the food available in the region, the fuel available to cook, and the societal likes and dislikes of the inhabitants of each region. Although each have their own unique styles and tastes, most of the dishes have three things in common – rice, noodles, and vegetables. Some traditional cooking includes using a wok, and eating with chop sticks – both strange to the Euro-Americans. Chinese, for thousands of years believed that there was a direct relationship between gastronomy and health; so cooking was not only a way to satisfy an appetite, but it also became a science and an art form.

It is also interesting to note a number of eating customs to remember when having a meal in China:

  • The elderly/senior members and guest of honor sit first; and one must not eat until they have begun eating
  • Pick up the bowl from the side or top, and never from the bottom (holding from the bottom is associated with the act of begging)
  • Proper manners are expected (similar to proper table manners in America)
  • For a popular/premier on the table, one should take sparingly, and ask others first if taking a second portion (do not over-fill your plate)
  • A younger table guest should fill rice on the plates of their elders before their own, and if an elder gives them rice, they should say thank you.
  • Being distracted by anything other than the people and food at the table (e.g., tv, cell phones, etc.) is considered bad table manners
  • Tea is usually served when you sit at the table.  You should tap the table with two or three fingers when you have had enough as a way of asking them to stop, and to express thank you
  • Chew with your mouth closed
  • Do not stick chopsticks vertically into your food (it is associated with the incense sticks at funerals)
  • Knives are usually not provided on the table because they are seen as violent and will break the harmony of the meal
  • Contrary to some old popular beliefs, slurping your food/soup loudly is not acceptable

For an unabridged version of this article, please visit: https://foodhistoryreligion.wordpress.com/.

Keep on cookin’

Chef Lon E.

The Recipe

This month’s dish is from a recipe for a chicken and broccoli dish I found a number of years ago. The dish, and sauce are very easy to make.


3 tbs vegetable oil

2 chicken breasts (boneless, cut into bite-size strips)

1 sml. head broccoli (chopped)

½ cup onions (chopped)

Salt & pepper

Sauce (to be combined)

  • 4 tbs soy sauce
  • 1 clove garic (minced)
  • 2 tbs rice wine vinegar
  • 2 tbs honey
  • 1 tbs corn starch
  • ½ tsp ground ginger


  1. Heat 2 tbs oil, then add chicken, onions, salt and pepper – heat until chicken is mostly cooked (~5 min)
  2. Add 1 tbs oil and broccoli and stir until broccoli is bright green (~ 3-5 min)
  3. Add sauce and stir until thickened (~1-2 min)
  4. Optional: sprinkle with sesame seads


“Chinese Authorities Crack Down on Tiny Jewish Community”  (TimesOfIsrael.com: 2016) @ http://www.timesofisrael.com/chinese-authorities-crack-down-on-tiny-jewish-community/

“Chinese Calendar” (Wikipedia.org) @ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_calendar

“The Chinese Calendar” (Time and Date.com) @ https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/about-chinese.html

“China Virtual Jewish History” @ http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/chinajews.html

“Detailed History of the Kaifeng Jews” (Michael Pollack: Sino-Judaic Institute) @ http://www.sino-judaic.org/index.php?page=kaifeng_jews_history

“Jewish and Chinese Calendars are More Similar Than You Think” (George Jochnowitz: Algemeiner.com: 2014) @ https://www.algemeiner.com/2014/01/28/jewish-and-chinese-calendars-are-more-similar-than-you-think/

“How Many Jewish New Years” (Michelle Alperin: My Jewish Learning) @ http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/how-many-jewish-new-years/

“ ‘Tis the Season: Why Do Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas?” (Haaretz.com: 2014) @ http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/1.633512

“Why Are the Chinese So Obsessed With the Jews?” (Banjamin Ivry: Forward.com: 2016) @ http://forward.com/culture/344669/why-are-the-chinese-so-obsessed-with-the-jews/

“Why Do American Jews Eat Chinese Food on Christmas?” (Adam Chandler: TheAtlantic.com: 2014) @ http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2014/12/why-american-jews-eat-chinese-food-on-christmas/384011/

“What Jews and Chinese Have in Common” (Michael Goldfarb: BBC.com: 2014) @ http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-26067154

“Virtual Statistics: Jewish Population of the World” (Jewish Virtual Library) @ http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/jewpop.html




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