Food

Stop Dissociating Bagels From Their Jewish Roots

It was uncharacteristic, the flash of anger that hit me when a friend, fresh off a trip to Iceland, told me he had a fantasy of going back and opening a New York-style bagel shop.

“You’re not even Jewish!,” I sputtered.

“I’m from New York!,” he countered.

I was fuming. As a secular Jew who was raised by a Montrealer and a New Yorker, bagels are my birthright. They’re my cultural legacy. They came to the U.S. with the wave of immigrants that brought my great-grandparents from Poland and Russia, and within 60 years, the entire country was enamored with them. If New York is famous for its bagels, it’s because it has the highest Jewish population of any city in the world.

A little respect, please.

My childhood was shaped by the bagel revolution that took place in America from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s. In my early years, the very act of consuming them was a matter of ritual, one that most often played out during family visits to Montreal or Long Island. Warm from the bakery or oven, they were heated whole—never cut and toasted. Only then were they sliced and topped with any combination of cream cheese, lox, whitefish, tomatoes, capers and red onions. For a family like ours that attended temple only on the high holy days, this was what religion looked like.

And then Bruegger’s opened near my house in Cambridge, Mass., and then Starbucks, and then the gourmet grocery store near my high school, and teenagers were ordering broad-voweled beg-uhls with butter. Ham and cheese sandwiches on Cheddar bagels. Strawberry cream cheese on French toast bagels.

Slowly, and then all of a sudden, bagels lost their weekend-morning ceremony and became a snack like any other. That’s a huge loss. It’s an old trope that food brings people together—and it’s not always true—but when we strip a food of all its context, it doesn’t stand a chance.

We can pinpoint the moment bagels started to lose their Jewishness and became commercially ubiquitous: the launch of Lender’s Bagels. Murray Lender was a Polish Jew who discovered that bagels could be frozen during the week for peak sales on Sundays. And once he was freezing bagels, why not ship them that way? Quickly, the whole country got bagel access, but these bagels had lost their tooth, and were puffy and soft-crusted.

When Kraft acquired Lender’s in 1984, production got bigger, but Jewish influence got smaller, and bagels were advertised as a vehicle for Philadelphia cream cheese, devoid of any reference to where they had come from and without any mention of lox, whitefish or the kosher tradition allowing dairy and fish to be served together on bagels. Then Sara Lee got in on the action, seeing an opportunity to make a frozen breakfast bread that was less fancy and expensive than its frozen croissants. But while croissants maintained their sheen of Frenchness, bagels were offered up without context or culture—just a round breakfast food you could prepare in your toaster.

Meanwhile, with the founding of Bruegger’s Bagels in 1983, bagels became a lunch food, too, available in flavors like Asiago, jalapeño-Cheddar and even (to the consternation of nearly everyone in my family) blueberry, topped with flavored cream cheeses like honey walnut and cucumber dill. Mark Gaynor, then managing editor of the trade magazine Bakery Production and Marketing, told The New York Times in 1986, “What we’re seeing is the Americanization of the bagel.”

It’s an old trope that food brings people together—and it’s not always true—but when we strip a food of all its context, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Einstein Bros. Bagels opened in 1995 with what appeared to be Jewish context, but it was a campy and fun version of Judaism; if you watched Seinfeld, being able to order a bagel with “schmear” felt like being part of the club. This was mass-cultural, theme park Judaism, no more redolent of a Long Island bakery than visiting a tiki bar is a trip to Tahiti, and felt especially insidious in light of revelations that the ownership had ties to the Third Reich.

Even after the indignity of seeing blueberry bagels topped with something more like frosting than cream cheese (or the most controversial misstep of Cynthia Nixon’s New York gubernatorial campaign: ordering lox on a cinnamon raisin bagel), I don’t think bagels should only be eaten the way I grew up doing so. Nor do I think only Jewish people should make or consume them. I love that so many people love this food that holds such a sacred space in my life. But I do take issue with the erasure of Jewish people in connection to bagels—and the cheeky use of Jewish schtick—because of the things it says about Jews’ role in this country.

Jews like me, whose relatives came here from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, occupy a strange place in America. We are white, except to the people who don’t want us to be. We’re assimilated until we’re accused of orchestrating grand conspiracies. I can go days without being bodily aware of my Jewishness, until a synagogue gets shot up, and suddenly I’m looking around wondering who can tell what I am. I could be standing in line for a bagel right next to someone who’s unbothered by swastikas spray painted on a garage, and while I’m there looking for comfort and a connection to my culture, they’re just picking up breakfast.

I’d like to take back the bagel. We acknowledge that pizza is Italian. We have no problem saying that lo mein is Chinese. And bagels are Jewish. This should be a consideration when they’re being added to menus and bakery cases. Skip the kitschy Yiddish catchphrases, and pay attention to the quality, the production, the size and the flavor of the bagels. Learn about all the traditional toppings before you put your own spin on them. Treat them like any other food item with a deep history in any other culture.  

Businesses are getting called out for bad puns on pho and leaning on stereotypes to sell tacos. When you’re thinking about cultural sensitivity on your menus, include bagels in the conversation. It won’t fix the state of the world or end anti-semitism, but it may just remind the people who would do us harm that we’ve contributed something great to this country.

Layla Schlack is senior editor at Wine Enthusiast.

As a Jew "like you" I appreciate this post but need to point out that we're not all white.
Are you also from Eastern Europe? Because that is specifically what the author wrote, "Jews like me, whose relatives came here from Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, occupy a strange place in America."
For further reading on the history of bagels, and their eventual migration to North America:
https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/03/the-secret-history-of-bagels/6928/
Thank you so much for writing about a subject that has bothered my husband and me for a very long time. Where we live in California (away from high-concentration Jewish neighborhoods), bagels have become just rolls with holes, many of them with abominable additions like the blueberries you mentioned. Perhaps the reason is that there is a dearth of appreciative buyers for the real thing.
I could not agree more. As Calvin Trillin noted, there are round rolls with a hole, and there are real bagels - chewy, with a definite mouth feel and flavor.. Mr. Lender has much to account for - but the cinnamon-raisin bagel was the death knell.
I am not Jewish. I did grow up with a large amount of Jewish friends. Interestingly there was a great Jewish bakery less than a block from my church. Every Sunday meant stopping for bagels before Sunday school. The two communities were so tied the church even hosted a passover dinner every year to foster better understanding between faiths. So, enough of that. On to the food. What I miss more than anything seems to be just what Layla misses. The tug and chew of a real east coast bagel. I can almost remember by jaw aching as I devoured my cream cheese and paper thin Nova bagel. Such fond memories.