Unorthodox, the world’s leading Jewish podcast, takes questions from its listeners about all aspects of Jewish life, from the religiously profound to the utterly inconsequential. Every week, we discuss one of these questions in “Ask Unorthodox.” If you have a question, please send it to email@example.com.
Last week, we responded to podcast listener Josh Bloom’s question about the mass noun “bagel,” as in, “I’m going out to the deli to get some appetizing and some bagel.” We thought we’d covered the ground well enough: we talked plural noun versus mass noun, we discussed the severe abnormality of the Philadelphia Blooms, and we even suggested other uses he could explore (Unorthodox host Stephanie Butnick: “I’d like to start using ‘bagel’ as a verb, the way ‘Uber’ has become one. I think it would mean something similar to vegging out on the couch and watching Netflix all day, as in: ‘I can’t wait to bagel this weekend.’”)
It turns out that all we did was use a bagel to poke a hornet’s nest.
Birte Bune Smith wrote to express dismay that we hadn’t reached for the simplest possible explanation for this mass-noun usage: that in Yiddish, “bagel” is both the singular form and the plural form. “It is the same in singular and plural in Yiddish, and that is why it should be so in English too,” she wrote, sternly, from Denmark. Other readers felt that we paid insufficient attention to geography. “My mother, born in 1916 and rather recently deceased, always used the plural bagel,” wrote Allan Goldman. “She lived all her life in Toledo, Ohio, but her grandfather started out servicing the Pennsylvania oil fields and moved East, ending up in Toledo. Might there be a Pennsylvania “bagel” connection?”
Mais non! Hershey Dwoskin of Montréal was having none of it. Jews here in Montreal, home of the world’s best bagels, often use the singular bagel to mean the plural. ‘If you’re going out, get some bagel’ is common. Its use has a more general sense than get some bagels, more specific.” And then, Hershey’s bagel talk got even warmer, his cheese creamier: “Because Montreal is a predominantly French speaking city, and the popularity of bagels has spread to all people living here, the word bagel is often written as baguel, as the spelling bagel would be pronounced ‘bajel.’ In fact, I once heard someone ask me if the store selling ‘bajel’ was open.”
How helpful, how Canadian! Some of our readers could take a lesson from Hershey. For example, one Mr. Fried wrote thus: “Dear Ignorami: The plural of ‘bagel’ in Yiddish is ‘bagel.’” If the ill-bred Mr. Fried ever travels to Montréal, we hope that Hershey will slap his punim with a bagel. Or a baguel.
Much to our shame, we overlooked the extant verb “to bagel,” which means either “to signal one’s Judaism to a fellow Jew by dropping in a phrase or reference” or, conversely, “to signal to a fellow Jew that one has spotted his or her Judaism.” In other words, bageling someone is either outing him, or outing yourself. Two readers reminded us of this usage. Nicole wrote, “My orthodox cousin wears a kippah and visible tzitzit. He says Reform Jews often indicate to him that they are also Jewish when they see the visible signs that he is Jewish. For instance, a stranger might tell him, ‘Gut shabbes.’ He calls this ‘bageling,’ as in, ‘He bageled me.’”
And linguist (and erstwhile Unorthodox guest) Sarah Benor pointed us to the definition, at Jewish-Languages.org, which gives the transitive and intransitive definitions of to bagel: “Inserting a Jewish phrase or concept into a conversation in order to indicate that one is Jewish or to determine whether the other person is Jewish; identifying another person as a Jew.” The sample sentences are killer: “‘I thought my seatmate might be Jewish, so I bageled him by asking if he was headed home for the hagim.’” “‘Will got bageled at the doctor’s office; the doctor said that she was taking Rosh Hashanah off, too.’”
Next week: creative definitions of gribenes.
Hey Mr. Ross and Mrs. Green, you just got bageled! Now that we have made you as a fellow Jew, you might need someone to answer your random questions. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To get the Unorthodox podcast, visit iTunes here, or use your favorite app.