Cole Wilson

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The Bagel Store Is My Synagogue

Shelsky’s in Brooklyn isn’t just where I buy Jewish food. It’s where my whole family connects to our shared identity.

Jamie Betesh Carter
September 11, 2023

Cole Wilson

I grew up in a mixed Ashkenazi/Sephardic home in New York, and my husband grew up in a secular Ashkenazi home in Israel. Our experiences and ideas of how to be Jewish vary widely, and I find myself constantly trying to figure out our family’s Jewish identity. We aren’t big on synagogue, haven’t found much meaning in prayer, and our kids are too young for Jewish summer camp or Hebrew school. While our children do attend Jewish preschool, we’re always trying to find ways to find and define our own Judaism at home.

One way we find Jewish meaning is in food. And one place we find that food is Shelsky’s.

Shelsky’s is a small, unassuming, relatively new shop in Brooklyn. While the main draw for most people are the freshly baked bagels and thinly sliced lox, it’s the other items lining the walls that lure me in: babka, year-round matzo, Bamba, jelly rings, and grape juice. Even though there are three synagogues within walking distance from our apartment, Shelsky’s is where I find myself going, and bringing our children, when I want to feel comfortable being Jewish. I am Jewish, and I eat Jewish, but I don’t often do Jewish things.

So, Shelsky’s has sort of become our synagogue. Or, at least, how others think about synagogue.

Every year around Labor Day, I know the High Holidays are coming up, but I usually delay planning for them. That is, until Shelsky’s reminds me to do so. “Now taking Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur Orders!” the email from Shelsky’s reads. Not only does Shelsky’s tell me when the holidays take place this year, but also when I should order their food, and what else I should make (the one thing that Shelsky’s doesn’t do for the holidays is main meat courses like brisket).

It also reminds me of my yearly dilemma: wanting to celebrate and observe the High Holidays, but never really finding a place, or way, to do it comfortably. While I would love to find a synagogue that feeds my soul spiritually, nothing has been the perfect fit just yet. Plus, I have two small children, so whenever I do get to go, I end up chasing my kids around rather than really diving deep into the Jewish rituals.

That’s where Shelsky’s comes in. It’s where I take my children every Friday to buy fresh challah. It’s where I run last minute on the first night of Hanukkah to buy candles. It’s where I go to buy the memorial candle to light on the anniversary of my father’s passing. It’s where I went when my father died to order food for shiva, and when my son was born to cater his bris. It’s not just a bagel shop. It’s our Jewish shop, as I call it.

Going to Shelsky’s on Fridays has become one of our most important Jewish rituals as a family.

When I walk into the shop each Friday afternoon, with my kids in their stroller, a warmth comes over me. I find myself comfortably and confidently explaining all of our Jewish rituals to my kids. I explain why we eat matzo on Passover, and why we eat challah on Shabbat. I feel like I’m back in my grandparents’ apartment in the 1980s eating bialys and herring with them, as I did every Saturday morning. I watch as their hands reach for the Bamba, just as mine did during my summer visits to Israel. This tiny shop holds so many of the traditions, foods, rituals, and memories that I’m trying so hard to pass down to my children. In a way, going to Shelsky’s on Fridays has become one of our most important Jewish rituals as a family.

It turns out this shop hasn’t only affected my life in such a meaningful way. Tablet’s very own Editor in Chief Alana Newhouse has a sandwich named after her—she thinks. “My father taught me so many things, but one thing I managed to gift to him before he died was the wonders of sable and tomato on a toasted bialy,” Newhouse told me. “At the age of 85, it became his favorite. I don’t actually know which of us Peter named it for, me or my father, which for me makes it even more special.”

If Alana and I both felt this way, I knew Shelsky’s had to have this impact on others as well. So I sat down with Peter Shelsky and Lewis Spada, Shelsky’s co-owners, to understand the intention behind all of this, beyond delicious bagels and lox.

Peter Shelsky grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and considered legendary appetizing store Russ & Daughters a second home. After years of working at culinary institutions like Eleven Madison Park, Shelsky began working as a private chef. He’d often go into his local fish shop, Fishtales in Cobble HIll, and consult his friend Lewis Spada on what to get for his dinners. It wasn’t until Christmas 2010 that the idea for Shelsky’s came to be. Every year, Shelsky would make a big Christmas Day brunch for his family and friends where he’d serve bagels, smoked salmon, whitefish, and all of the usual fixings. He was living in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, at the time, so during his hourlong ride to Russ & Daughters, and 90-minute wait on line, an idea came to him: “This is crazy, I thought to myself,” said Shelsky. “So many secular Jews who grew up on this food, and still want this food, live in brownstone Brooklyn. Why don’t we have our own shop like this? So at brunch that day, I ran the idea by my friends and they were all excited.” Six months later, in June 2011, Shelsky’s opened.

Shelsky’s was the first traditional appetizing shop to open in Brooklyn in over 60 years. He soon teamed up with Spada, becoming business partners, to sell the best bagels and lox in Brooklyn. “I’m the Italian every Jew should have in their life,” said Spada. “Even though I’m not Jewish, I grew up on this stuff. Italians and Jews are very similar—we gravitate toward food, it’s how we do life.”

It’s clear Shelsky and Spada take tremendous pride in upholding traditional Jewish food recipes while also innovating when necessary. “I wanted to source the finest things from the suppliers and producers, and I wanted to have some of our own proprietary recipes,” said Shelsky. “We make our own bagels, and we pickle our own herring.” Shelsky knew they needed to sell items like babka and rugelach, sweets he never really craved since they were usually so dry. So he set out to make his own recipe for delicious, moist desserts that would appeal to a whole new generation.

Beyond the bagels, Shelsky and Spada are very much aware of the role their shop plays in people’s lives, not just in a culinary way, but in a Jewish cultural way. “I definitely feel like we filled a void for our customers,” said Shelsky. “People come in and say, ‘Wow, this smells like my childhood!’” Importantly, people like me know that Shelsky’s is there for the celebrations, milestones, and memorials. “Just the other day, I had a customer come in to buy two yahrzeit candles, and she said, ‘Thank you! You’re literally the only ones that sell these anywhere in the neighborhood.’”

Shelsky appreciates the feeling of nostalgia and tradition people get coming into his shop. “It’s very heartwarming that customers come to us to celebrate life and death by sitting around and eating our food,” he said.

Even though Spada isn’t Jewish, he considers himself an honorary Jew. “People tell me I’m more Jewish than Peter,” Spada said with a laugh. “I take tremendous pride in the fact that customers come to us to provide meals for their most important Jewish life events. They may not be the holidays I grew up with, but it’s the food I grew up with, and it’s very important to me to honor family traditions.”

Speaking with Shelsky and Spada reaffirmed my adoration for Shelsky’s, not just as a bagel shop, but as my Jewish shop. I didn’t admit to them that sometimes I’ll visit their store and only buy Bissli, or a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda, just to get a whiff of the smells and sights of my childhood. But I buy enough of their proprietary products to justify that.

Our conversations left me more confident than ever in my feelings of Shelsky’s being one of the places I go to feel most connected to my Judaism. Yes, I’ve had meaningful moments reciting my own wishes and prayers at the Western Wall, and definitely felt a surge of spirituality and connection when receiving an aliyah to the Torah during my father’s memorial. But at each of these moments, I also felt self-conscious, imperfect, and unsure. At Shelsky’s, I don’t.

With all of the bagels, bialys, challah, whitefish, and yahrzeit candles, it’s where I feel like my most authentic Jewish self. It’s honestly the place where I’m most excited to celebrate the High Holidays with my children this year. Most importantly, Shelsky’s is where I feel most assured that I can pass down my Jewish heritage to my children. It’s where I’ll take them just before Rosh Hashanah to tell them the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents. It’s where the memories pour out of me, about the holiday meals we enjoyed together, and the foods my family would cook. It’s where we’ll come up with our own menu for all of the Jewish holidays I now host for our family, choosing all of the ingredients we’ll cook together.

Jamie Betesh Carter is a researcher, writer, and mother living in Brooklyn.