In one of the most darkly comic stories that circulated among Jews in 18th-century Poland, a Jewish simpleton has his life saved by a soggy bagel. One day, the simpleton falls into a river and starts flailing about and shouting for help. Recalling some advice about gentile affection for bagels, he fishes one out of his pocket and chucks the sodden roll to some peasants tilling a field nearby. Fortunately, he’s a simpleton with good aim: the wonder-working bagel alights at their feet, and the peasants come to his rescue.
The story is, like the bagel itself, both whimsical and a bit on the heavy side. It testifies to the bagel’s longstanding ability to “cross over” to non-Jews, but also begs the sobering question as to why the gentiles respond to the bagel but not to the simpleton’s cries for help. The bagel here enjoys a high level of esteem—unlike its cultural ambassador.
With its cynical wisdom, the tale fits perfectly within Maria Balinska’s intriguing book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, which uses the food’s vicissitudes to illuminate the past 400 years of Jewish history.
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During its infancy the bagel lived under a cloud of suspicion, much like the medieval Jews who baked it. A 1496 Polish edict, pushed by Krakow’s gentile bakers, banned Jews from selling bagels within the city limits. In Jewish records, the bagel is first mentioned in 1610, when the Jewish Council of Krakow formally restricted the number of bagels to be served on the occasion of a bris—part of a set of sumptuary laws that put a cap on Jewish consumption in order to deflect the envy of gentile neighbors.
Yet the bagel was not so easily contained by edicts and decrees. Jews put it to cultural use, making it an unmistakable feature of life and ritual. With its circular shape suggesting the circle of life, the bagel came to serve as the customary food at brises and funerals. In preparation for the fast of Tisha B’av, Jews in 19th-century Lithuania ate a ceremonial meal of bagels and hard-boiled eggs dipped in ash.
The bagel made similar inroads among gentiles in Eastern Europe. Non-Jews were among its chief aficionados, although bagel-baking and -selling became identified with Jews. On village market days, itinerant bagel sellers—often Jewish boys and older women—would circle the stalls, hawking wares with chants of “Bagels! Lemonade! Bagels! Corn on the cob!” Their customers would have included the town’s priest, its sheriff, or peasants who had come to market to sell their own vegetables and stock up on necessities like salt and shoes. Those who took in a meal at the local tavern might very well order the 19th-century equivalent of “the special”: an onion, a bagel, and a glass of schnapps.
Yet the bagel was not only an object of affection. “Go and bake bagels!” was a common Polish curse, suggesting the low status of both the bagel and those who toiled, late into the night, to make them fresh for the next day. Bagel bakers and peddlers struggled to earn a living and inhabited a low rung in the local hierarchy. To meet the Sunday morning, post-Sabbath bagel demand, bakers worked back-breaking shifts on the Sabbath.
As a result, many bagel bakers were quick recruits to the Bund movement starting at the turn of the 20th century, with some turning their bakeries into hubs of political debate. The business of a bakery drew a constant stream of customers interested in talking politics, but best of all it offered the cover necessary to keep the police off the scent of grassroots organizing. Bakeries in the Pale of Settlement were akin to black Southern churches during the civil rights movement: hidden crucibles of radical change.
But while bagel bakers were among the proudest members of the proletariat, bagel peddlers were its most harried. During the Great Depression, Polish peddlers typically had to sell bagels to over 40 customers to make one zloty in profit, all the while worrying that their bagels would soon turn stale (which they did with alarming speed) or that police would jail them for selling bagels without a license (which was prohibitively expensive). Editorials were written and cabaret songs composed to protest their plight; the classic 1935 Yiddish film Mir Kumen On (Children Must Laugh) begins with a scene of police harassing a group of ragamuffin peddlers. Sadly, Mir Kumen On is one of the last records of this world of the bagel and its sellers, much of which perished in the Holocaust.
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The story of the bagel’s Americanization—how it was reinvented as a “Jewish English muffin with personality,” in the words of Murray Lender—is a happier tale, though it also begins with dank bakery cellars and egregious working conditions. In the 1890s bagel bakers on the Lower East Side often worked 13-hour days, seven days a week, and slept in unventilated basements with rats, cats, and cockroaches “as big as birds” for company. Hyam Plumka, a lowly bread carrier on Hester Street who later became a union leader and later still was featured on Ripley’s Believe It or Not for having written his life story in 4,000 characters on the back of a penny postcard, remembered that “In every Jewish bakery, the bakery bosses used ‘spoiled eggs.’ . . . Some of the eggs gave a little burst when I cracked them open. My hands became full of white worms.”
After almost two decades of organizing—and after a series of often violent strikes—New York bagel bakers won the union recognition that their Polish counterparts never achieved. Their triumph was seen as a triumph for the local Jewish community: in 1909, 5,000 New Yorkers joined the victory parade, which was led by a gargantuan loaf of bread, more than 15 feet long and five feet wide. Balinska views the bakers’ victory as a signal event in American labor history, sparking an era when Jewish labor played a prominent role in New York’s labor movement.
Union militancy also brought formerly humble bagel makers benefits that their predecessors could only dream of. By the 1950s, they were earning three times the median wage in New York City and had pension plans, health, dental, and even eyeglass insurance. “Kings of the line,” bagel bakers were famous for their bravado—throwing steaks into the bagel oven, eating them with homebrewed whiskey—and infamous for their often-nepotistic hiring practices.
Then, in the 1960s, the bagel bakers’ dynastic world was turned upside-down by two unassuming developments: the manufacture of dough preservatives and the invention of the bagel-rolling machine. Now, bagels enjoyed a shelf life of more than five hours and could be trucked up and down the Eastern seaboard. The bagel-rolling machine replaced hands expert at the “thump-thump, clap-clap” rhythm of cutting and twisting. The old bagel makers went into decline just as the bagel itself exploded in popularity. In 1971, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the bagel was “no longer localized, nor ethnic, nor even handmade, as it was for centuries.”
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The bagel has become a familiar, somehow comical element of America’s national cuisine. In terms of its design, it has followed the general trajectory of our automobiles, becoming super-sized and ever more tricked out with new features. The sweet cinnamon-raisin bagel, dreamed up by the Lender family in the mid-1950s to make the bagel more like a danish, has now been joined by the blueberry bagel, the asiago cheese bagel, the pumpkin bagel, the jalapeno bagel, the pepperoni pizza bagel, the spinach Florentine bagel, the dutch apple bagel, the St. Patrick’s Day bagel, the squagel, and probably hundreds of others.
Balinska largely credits the New Haven-based Lender family with this transformation of the bagel from simple breadstuff to all-purpose wonder carb. Harry Lender first started freezing his bagels so that his family would have Sunday night to rest, but soon discovered that the frozen bagel was a marketable bonanza. The Lender family descended upon supermarket buyers, preaching the gospel of the bagel with a zany enthusiasm that rubbed off on their product. On one occasion, Harry’s son, Murray, dancing on the desk of a supermarket buyer, started chanting “frozen bagels,” then dropped his pants to show underwear that read “BUY BAGELS.”
Despite the Marx Brothers-like antics, the Lenders succeeded by downplaying the Jewishness of their product. They cross-promoted with Dannon, Maxwell House, Smuckers, and, especially, Philadelphia Cream Cheese; their advertising paired bagels with hamburgers, tuna fish, even bacon. In 1969, Murray Lender told the Hartford Courant, “A bagel has versatility. When most people call it a Jewish product, it hurts us. It’s a roll, a roll with personality. . . . We don’t talk of bagels, lox (Nova Scotia salmon) and cream cheese. It limits them.” By the mid-1970s, Lenders bagels were available at supermarkets across the United States and American military bases around the world, where crewcut GIs learned the art of the shmear.
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The current ubiquity of the bagel leads Balinska to read its story as “the classic tale of the successful immigrant: his quest for acceptance and fortune and his triumph against the odds, a triumph leavened by the necessary compromises he has made in constructing a new identity for himself.” The bagel, in fact, bears a curious relationship to Jews themselves, who have had a longstanding tendency to scatter and resettle, to hold onto some aspects of a former identity while demonstrating a formidable ability to mimic the new local culture. A bagel becoming a squagel is not so different, from this angle, than Belle Silverman becoming Beverly Sills or Carole Klein becoming Carole King.
“Trees have roots,” Isaac Deutscher famously quipped, “Jews have legs.” So, as Balinska’s deft book makes clear, do bagels. In a Lenders cartoon announcing the “love story” between a Lenders bagel and a lipsticked tub of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, the bagel is smiling and flexing his legs. He looks like he’s ready to take her somewhere unexpected.
Abigail Miller is Tablet Magazine’s art director.