The bagel may be the greatest gift bestowed by Jews on American culture. Of course there are other contenders. A solid case could be made for the Broadway musical, for the noun schmuck and the verb schlep, for Blazing Saddles, for Bella Abzug’s hats. But the bagel is way up there, ranking high in the pantheon of definitively Jewish things that became distinctly American things—in the bagel’s case, a possibly more American thing than the proverbial slice of all-American apple pie, at least as far as 2018 market share goes.
In fact, Jews didn’t just transmit bagel love to the goyim. They transmitted bagel lore and bagel wisdom, bagel theory and bagel practice. The purist halakha governing bagels—how they should be made, what they should look like, how they should taste, what should and shouldn’t be cooked in or piled on them—has permeated American life so profoundly that bagel purists can found be just about everywhere. On a road trip not long ago, I made a pit stop in a Dunkin Donuts on the outskirts of a tiny central New Hampshire town, about as far outside the cultural orbit of New York City Jewry as it is possible to travel in the northeastern United States. The woman standing in line in front of me was as self-evidently a New Englander of Protestant stock as my great-great-great grandmother was a Krakow Jew, yet when her bagel order arrived—a flimsy slab of bread-like matter, a kind of coffee table coaster with a hole in the middle—she curled her lip and unleashed a soliloquy on the theme “You call this a bagel?” to rival the rantings of the prophet in Isaiah chapter 10.
A more newsworthy bagel controversy erupted last week, when cameras captured New York gubernatorial candidate and former Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon purchasing a cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese, lox, tomato, capers, and red onions. Traditionalists view cinnamon raisin bagels as suspect in the first place; to top this dubious dried fruit-packed “dessert bagel” with “a full load”—the salty, briny, fishy staples of Sunday brunch—was, to the devout, an unfathomable outrage. Nixon’s blasphemy was heightened by the setting: she was at Zabar’s, the Holy of Holies bastion of deli tradition on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
The reaction was swift and brutal. In the press and on social media, critics swooped down, expressing horror and incomprehension. Nixon was deemed “a shonda” and “a psychopath,” her Zabar’s order decried as a “crime against humanity” and “crime against the bagel gods.” Newspaper editors coughed up puns: “Cinnamon Raisin Bagels Face a Schmear Campaign,” “Lox Her Up.” Nixon, for her part, claimed to be shocked by the uproar. She had been ordering cinnamon raisin bagels with the works for decades. “It’s my go-to,” she said. When reporters caught up with Nixon in Grand Central Station later in the day, the candidate quipped “Don’t yuck my yum”—a greater crime against language, surely, that any perpetrated against bagelry.
Pundits were quick to place “bagel-gate” in long lineage of politicians’s culinary blunders, alongside such scandals as Bill de Blasio eating pizza with a fork and George H.W. Bush requesting a coffee refill at a New Hampshire truck stop with the preppie-ism “just a splash.” These episodes, the theory goes, lift the veil on a pol’s inauthenticity, exposing dodgy regional and populist bona fides. The wrongly-phrased diner order, the plastic fork and knife wielded to carve at a pepperoni slice where hairy-knuckled man-hands would and should do—such infamies expose the candidate as a carpetbagger or an elitist or both.
In Nixon’s case, the cry went up: “Not a real New Yorker!” This was a weird accusation, since Nixon is empirically a real New Yorker, a lifelong Manhattan resident who radiates the savoir faire—and, perhaps, just a touch of the haughtiness—that marks the Gotham native. If anything, Nixon’s cinnamon raisin-and-lox sacrilege underscored her New York-ness: it bespoke a person fully at ease in her city and her skin, confident enough to saunter to a deli counter and demand an outré sandwich. It seemed not to have occurred to pundits that, as political theater, Nixon’s bagel order was on-brand. It was a left-of-center bagel order, a transgressive bagel order, a signal that, unlike her primary opponent, incumbent Governor and Democratic Party establishment man Andrew Cuomo, Nixon was not beholden to the status quo.
Not that any of this mattered when it came to the vote count. Pre-bagel-gate polls predicted a big victory for Governor Cuomo, and the final tally brought the expected result. What remains in the aftermath—lingering, you might say, like hot scent of Nova and raw onion on the breath of a Zabar’s lunch customer—are lessons about bagels, their relationship to New York City, to Jews, and to some supposed essence of both.
The most striking thing about bagel-gate was how old-fashioned it was, a controversy rooted in ideas about New York Jewish culture that are at least a half-century out of date. The hallowing of old folkways is especially prevalent among secular Jews of a certain stripe, the kind of Jews who are alienated from many of the traditional institutions and practices of Jewish life, for whom things like bagels and lox hold an outsized talismanic power. As Liel Leibovitz wrote in Tablet last year, these are Jews who “describe themselves playfully as ‘Bagel Jews,’ as if some schmear could cover up their discomfort with their heritage.”
To insist that the bagel remains a sacrosanct New York Jewish thing is to indulge in absurd nostalgia. It’s akin to imagining that Jewish families are still hopping in Plymouth station wagons every July to caravan from the Grand Concourse to Catskills resorts, where they dance the mambo to Mickey Katz. The world turns; stuff changes. The howls from all corners that greeted Nixon’s bagel “gaffe” was another indication that the bagel has assimilated—that it has passed from the realm of tribal totem and gone pop. Today, the appropriate attitude of Jews towards all things bagel should be one of aloof affection, the slightly ironic fondness of an initiate who Knew The Bagel When. Let gentiles thunder on Twitter about the atrocity of a bad bagel order. Jews should take a more jaundiced view, have a more sophisticated understanding, of what a bagel is and isn’t in 2018.
What is a bagel? It’s a delicious carbohydrate bomb. Whether you swear by the salty, bloated New York version or the sweeter, svelter, more opulently seed-encrusted Montreal kind—whether you chomp your bagel on its own or festoon it with supplementary foodstuffs—a bagel remains a fine, filling snack. What a bagel isn’t is elegant, exalted, worthy of worship. It is loveably vulgar and utilitarian. A bagel is a kind of miniature platter, a plate you can eat, fit to be spackled with a fatty spread and heaped with whitefish, watercress, whatever.
In short, bagels are tacky. In the 21st century, they’re getting tackier. There are blueberry bagels and Asiago bagels and beet bagels and Spinach Florentine bagels and grilled banana Maui bagels and jalapeño cheddar bagels. There are treyf bagels: consider the Elvis Bagel, a honey- and peanut butter-shellacked bagel, topped with banana slices and bacon slabs. There are Rainbow bagels and birthday cake bagels. The widely beloved, fully canonical Everything bagel isn’t an Everything bagel after all; it’s a just-a-few-things bagel. Someday soon, the true Everything bagel may arrive, studded and stuffed with every food under the sun, gilded and gleaming like a rococo monstrance.
As for Cynthia Nixon’s lunch: Is it really that bad? I went to my corner bagel joint and ordered a cinnamon raisin with cream cheese, Nova, and tomato. (Capers and onions aren’t my thing.) Lo and behold, it wasn’t just a tasty sandwich, it was balanced sandwich: a pleasantly harmonious blend of sweetness and saltiness, with a hint of spice, a bit of crunch, a lot of chew. In fact, the cinnamon raisin-fish combination has precedents in Jewish tradition. Many North African Jewish fish recipes incorporate cinnamon and generous garnishes of raisins. Pesce All’Ebraica, a sweet and sour fish with raisins and pine nuts, is a traditional Italian Jewish dish eaten on festive occasions, including the Yom Kippur break-fast.
Nixon’s favorite bagel, it turns out, isn’t an assault on Jewish cuisine. It’s an amplification of a Jewish cuisine: an Ashkenazi-Sephardic fusion bagel. You should try it sometime. Don’t let anyone yuck your yum.