Major Project: Are Bagels Jewish? (2017)

By January 31, 2017 November 19th, 2018 Bnei Mitzvah, Major Papers

The following essay about Jewish art was written by Jakob Shonbrun Siege, a middle schooler, enrolled in City Congregation’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah program. Students spend a year and a half researching their heritage, values and beliefs, and write on a Jewish subject of their choice, their major project; an example of this last component can be seen below. The process improves both the student’s writing and critical thinking skills, as well as his/her self confidence and overall maturity.

Are bagels Jewish? This seems like a strange major paper topic for a bar mitzvah. But through this project I tried to figure out if bagels are Jewish (or really if people believe they are). Food always represents a culture so I thought why not use one of my favorite foods and learn how and if it represents Judaism.

A bagel, according to Wikipedia, and for those who don’t know (I doubt there are any of you out there in that category), is a bread product traditionally shaped by hand into the form of a ring from yeasted wheat dough, roughly hand-sized, which is first boiled in water and then baked. 

Before learning about its relationship to Judaism, I of course had to learn about the history of the bagel. A common belief is that the bagel was created in the shape of a stirrup to commemorate the victory of Polish King John Sobieski against the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Vienna in 1683, but that is false. The real first known mention of the bagel was in 1610 in a Jewish community in Kraków, Poland with possible predecessors from Italy and Uighur communities in Northwestern China. The bagel established its place in Polish culture alongside its similar counterpart, the obwarzanek, which is slightly bigger and is made by weaving two strands of dough rather than one in the case of the bagel.

Polish-Jewish immigrants brought bagels to the U.S. where they became very popular, especially in New York City. Their popularity grew rapidly during the 20th century and bagels quickly became a traditional part of Jewish-American culture (especially with lox and a schmear of cream cheese). Now bagels have spread around the world from their Jewish origins in many different shapes and sizes including bialys, Montreal-style bagels, and even rainbow bagels.  So the question that is begging to be asked is: Are bagels Jewish?

I surveyed 33 people during a City Congregation Purim Shabbat celebration and here are my results:

When I asked people to list three foods they believed to be Jewish, only nine (9) listed the bagel.  You might be interested to know that matzoh balls were most with fourteen entries. The most common reasons people chose a food as being Jewish were tradition and eating them during holidays. This may have been a big factor in why people didn’t list bagels – they aren’t on the Seder plate and they don’t have a specific place in Jewish history (like matzoh). They are an important, but relatively underrepresented symbol of Judaism.

And when the survey asked people who had not themselves mentioned bagels as a Jewish food, “Do you consider bagels to be Jewish?” almost everyone wrote that they did, their reason being most often that bagels are a symbol of Jewish-American culture and have become a modern symbol of Judaism. Most of those who said that they didn’t consider bagels to be Jewish wrote that it was because bagels have become more of a universal food. Because of those results I wanted to find out when bagels were a uniquely Jewish food. My next step was to explore, firsthand, the bagel community here in New York. I visited many Jewish, and non-Jewish, delis, and bagel bakeries to find out what people working there thought about bagels and Judaism, as well as try some delicious bagels myself! The first place I visited was a small bagel shop near my house in Park Slope: The Bagel Hole. And when I say small, I mean really small. This store is maybe 12 feet wide and yet it still manages to make some of the best bagels in the city. My dad and I talked to the man working there who happened to be Jewish, and he told us a lot (mainly bagel history which I have already been over). When he finished, we told him this interview was for my bar mitzvah, and he said, “Welcome,” and something along the lines of “it’s an amazing community to be a part of.”  And that was really nice to hear as I was approaching the end of my bar mitzvah process, about to become more of an adult in this “amazing community.”

The next, and maybe most memorable visit was to The Bagel Store, home to the rainbow bagel. My mentor, Dan, told me about these rainbow bagels and so I naturally had to see and try them, but I later realized that that is easier said than done. When we got to the store we saw a line going out the door and around the corner. I immediately thought this was going to be bad, but we had come all the way there (it was in Williamsburg) so we had to stay and wait. And after 45 minutes of waiting in the cold, we finally got in and we found… another line! We finally ordered our bagels (two rainbow, a Yankees themed blueberry bagel, and a French toast flavored one for my dad) and they were delicious! Sadly, it was too busy to ask someone working there about bagels and Judaism but it was a fun experience nonetheless.

My last visits were to Russ & Daughters and Yonah Schimmel’s in the Lower East Side of New York City. At Russ & Daughters we met Herman, a longtime employee. He said that bagels were not originally Jewish, but Jews took them over more recently. This does not support my research or ideas, but it goes to show that there are so many opinions about this topic, which was one of the reasons why I chose to explore it.

At Yonah Schimmel’s I tried my first knish. It was… okay, but bagels are my favorite Jewish food, of course. And I know, I’m supposed to be learning about bagels, not knishes, but we thought, “Why not explore other aspects of Jewish food while we’re at it?” and my parents couldn’t stand the fact that I hadn’t tried one. Once again, we couldn’t find anyone working there to talk to, so instead we started a conversation with the people sitting next to us. They thought bagels were not Jewish because they were pretty much everywhere, similar to some people I surveyed. As you can see, these visits did not provide a lot of information. But they were a great experience that I’ll remember for a long time and isn’t that what our program is all about?

Not only did I visit some bagel places, I tried making them. And boy, is it hard. We couldn’t make them fluffy and thick like the ones we bought, but it was still a lot of fun and they tasted pretty good! It also gave me a greater appreciation of those bagel stores and their amazing bagels. He’s a little video of us making bagels.

After my visits, I decided to really explore the question I had from my survey: “When were bagels uniquely Jewish?” and further, “When and why did they stop being solely Jewish?” This is what I discovered:

Bagels were mainly found only in Jewish communities in major cities like New York City before the 1960’s. That could be considered the time when bagels were the most uniquely Jewish, seeing as they were only eaten by Jews at that point. However, it needs to be said that bagels really only became known to the broad public after the 1960s. In fact, they were so little known outside of those communities that when the New York Times had an article on the bagel bakers’ strike in 1951 it provided a pronunciation guide (“baygle”) and described the food for readers. When bagels grew massively in popularity after the 1960’s they continued to be made and eaten by Jews, but now the general public was trying this exotic toast wannabe. People (non-Jews) noticed this and wanted to jump on the bagel bandwagon, so they started making and selling bagels as well.

Now, I can’t talk about the history and popularity boom of bagels without mentioning Lender’s Bagels. Probably the largest factor in the growth of bagels in the mainstream market was Lender’s, the inventor of the frozen bagel. Everyone wanted fresh bagels, but to keep up with the demand, Lender’s started freezing their bagels and reheated them for customers. This was much more efficient than having to make the bagels almost every night to be ready for consumption in the morning. But, they kept it a secret because, as I said, everyone wanted fresh bagels! However, it was discovered that they froze their bagels after they were delivered to a customer frozen.

When Harry Lender died, his son, Murray, embraced the idea of selling frozen bagels and introduced them to the mass market. He became the spokesperson for Lender’s and played a huge role in its massive growth in the 1970s with the help of an era where ethnic food was becoming “trendy.” He started many ad campaigns, including one that cited the bagel as “the Jewish English muffin.” Murray even created green bagels for St. Patrick’s Day and an oval bagel for President Lyndon Johnson to eat on TV in the oval office. He was trying to make bagels the new go-to bread for Americans.

Show Ad for Lender’s with Murray

I would say he succeeded in making bagels mainstream. We owe a lot to Murray Lender for making one of my favorite foods available anywhere and everywhere. But frozen bagels are not all the rage anymore, and I most likely would not pick up a bag of Lender’s bagels from the grocery store. In addition, bagels are now trying to find a foothold in this new healthy market of only gluten free, low-carb, and low calorie foods. Companies are making them smaller or trying to make them healthier by providing those gluten-free and low-carb options, but it’s hard because those often don’t taste very good. Another option they have is making bagels more of an indulgence: adding flavor or color to make them a treat rather than an unwanted, unhealthy sandwich bread.

We are not in a time when the freshest bagels are the best, but the most outrageous, most brightly colored, and the most exotically flavored bagels are the ones everyone waits in line for. I would know! Maybe that’s why many people think bagels are no longer Jewish: they’re barely bagels anymore. They’ve spread across the world in every shape and every color. They’ve had to shrink or be turned into a colorful treat to stay viable in the health-centered world we find ourselves in. But maybe that, that change and adaptation, is what makes those bagels and all bagels Jewish. We Jews have changed, grown, and adapted throughout history and we have not always been popular. I mean look at this congregation, at this bar mitzvah, it is not at all traditional but it stays true to our core Jewish values and roots. I believe that bagels, too, stay true to their roots and the values of the Jews who brought them here and shared them for all to enjoy.