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Bagels: A Surprising Jewish History

March 23, 2017 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

The history of bagels gives a window to Jewish history and fortunes over the past 800 years.

Bagels are a quintessential Jewish food. Traditionally first boiled and then baked, this unusual cooking method gives bagels a chewy outer texture, and a distinctive, delicious soft dough within. The history of bagels’ development and soaring popularity gives a window to Jewish history and fortunes over the past 800 years.

In the early Middle Ages, a form of round bread became popular among German migrants to Poland, similar to the classic German pretzel. In her book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, food historian Maria Balinska posits that the round Polish roll called the obwarzanek was a twist – both figuratively and literally – on pretzels, turning these doughy treats into a round pastry that soon became popular throughout Poland.

In Medieval Europe, Church officials and local nobles often forbade Jews from baking bread at all.

At the same time, Jews were migrating to Poland too, often from German lands. In Medieval Europe, Church officials and local nobles often forbade Jews from baking bread at all, which the Church viewed as a holy food and thus too good to allow Jews to enjoy. That began to change in Poland, where enlightened views began to prevail, and Jews began to be welcomed – cautiously.

In 1264, the Polish Prince Boleslaw the Pious declared that “Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread just like Christians.” It was a momentous announcement, but Church officials quickly moved to limit the Jews’ new right, forbidding Christians from buying “Jewish” bread, and telling congregants that Jewish-made bread was poisoned.

Eventually, Jews in Poland won the right to make and sell bread – not ordinary bread, which was still viewed with suspicion by Christian customers, but bread that was boiled, and thus distinctive and different from bread supplied by Christian bakers. Jewish bakers made round-shaped pastries like obwarzanek, but boiled them instead of baking the bread, calling them bagels. Bagels soon became a popular staple among Poland’s Jews, and with their non-Jewish customers.

Origin of the Name Bagel

The origin of the name bagel is disputed. Some historians trace the name to 1683, when a Viennese baker crafted a ring-like pastry in honor of King Jan Sobieski of Poland, to thank him for leading Austrian troops to repel the invading Turkish army. Because the king loved horses, this pastry was supposedly called a “stirrup”, or “beugel” in German. But others note that Jews were calling the boiled and baked rolls “bagels” long before, probably deriving the name from the the Yiddish word beigen, meaning to bend.

The first known written reference to bagels is a testament to their ubiquity. In 1610 the Jewish Council of Krakow issued a regulation in Yiddish advising the local Jewish community not to hold overly-lavish celebrations for their babies’ brisses in order “to avoid making gentile neighbors envious” – and also to ensure that members of the community didn’t go into debt in the celebrations. One of the key foods the regulation assumed would be served at a bris was (much like today) bagels.

Poland and Bagels

Bagels remained a Jewish staple in Poland for generations. In his memoir about growing up in Poland, A Day of Pleasure: Stories of a Boy Growing Up in Warsaw, the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer recalls a trip he took from Warsaw to Radzymin in 1908: “Sidewalk peddlers sold loaves of bread, baskets of bagels and rolls, smoked herring, hot peas, brown beans, apples, pears and plums”.

Selling bagels was common in Jewish communities, though the penalties for doing so without a license could be severe. Food writer Claudia Roden notes that in Poland, bagels were “sold on the street by vendors with baskets or hanging on long sticks. Hawkers had to have a license. Illegal selling of bagels by children was common and viewed as respectable, especially by orphans helping their widowed mothers, but if they were caught by a policeman they would be beaten and their baskets, bagels, and linen cover would be taken away.” (The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey From Samarkand to New York, by Claudia Roden, Alfred A. Knopf, New York: 1996.)

Bagels in America

When Jews moved from Poland to America, they brought their tradition of baking and selling bagels with them. Claudia Roden recalls that when her Syrian-Jewish great-uncle Jacques immigrated to New York, the only job he could get was selling bagels from a pushcart. He’d never seen bagels before; unable to master the Yiddish that many of his customers spoke, he eventually left America and moved to Egypt, where there was also then a thriving Jewish community.

For years, bagels remained a niche delicacy, little known outside the Jewish community. In 1951, when it was covering a strike by the city’s bagel bakers, The New York Times felt the need to explain to readers what the pastry in question was: a “glazed surfaced roll with the firm white dough.”

Several cities with large Jewish communities soon laid claim to having the best bagels. New Yorkers credited the mineral content of their water with creating what they claim are the best-tasting bagels in the world. Montreal is also known for its bagels where a little honey is added to the boiling water, which makes the bagels sweeter. Montreal bakers bake their distinctive bagels in wood-burning ovens and tend to shape their bagels with a much larger hole in the center.

Large bagel-holes are also a hallmark of Jerusalem bagels, which are still sometimes draped on wooden sticks in bakeries, the way bagels used to be displayed in Poland. Jerusalem bagels are sprinkled with sesame seeds, and often eaten with za’atar, a popular Israeli spice mixture featuring hyssop, sesame, chickpea powder, olive oil, coriander and salt.

Going Mainstream

In the 1960s this Jewish delicacy started to go mainstream. An early driver of bagels’ burgeoning popularity was Murray Lender who grew up working in his family’s Jewish bakery in New Haven, Connecticut. Like all bagel bakers, the Lenders had to cope with uneven demand: fewer customers wanted bagels during the week, while on weekends, the bakery could easily sell between 3,000 and 6,000 dozen. (That’s 72,000 bagels in one weekend!)

In 1954, the Lenders converted part of their garage to a storage freezer and started making bagels all week long, then freezing them for the weekend rush. Soon, the Lenders were selling bagels already frozen, and came up with another innovation: since defrosted bagels tended to be harder than the fresh-baked variety, selling them pre-cut. In 1966, another bagel company opened an automated bagel factory opened in the Bronx, replacing bakers who before had hand-rolled, boiled, and baked the dough.

Today, frozen, pre-sliced and long-life bagels are a popular staple in the US and beyond. But along the way, something essential seems to have been lost: mass-produced bagels are far from the chewy, hand-created bagels of yore. Instead of boiling then baking the dough, today’s convenience bagels are “steam baked”: a process by which a little water is added to commercial ovens to produce a moister product. Bagels are machine-rolled instead of hand-made, and are baked in standard steel commercial ovens. They’ve become an all-American product, coming in flavors such as blueberry and cinnamon, and even outstripping sales of another round quintessential American pastry: the doughnut.

Like American Jews who sought to seek their distinctive Jewishness behind, today’s mushy, mass-produced bagels have lost what made them special.

William Safire once noted that the end result is bland, stripped of everything that first made bagels popular to begin with. “The formerly chewy morsel that once had to be separated from the rest of its ring by a sharp jerk of the eater’s head is now devoid of character – half-baked, seeking to be all pastry to all men.” Like American Jews who sought to seek their distinctive Jewishness behind, today’s mushy, mass-produced bagels have lost what made them special. A 2011 Time Magazine article lamented the American-ization of the bagel, calling it “a symbol of assimilation at any cost”.

Yet, bagels, like the Jewish people itself, are resilient, and a new generation of bakers and customers is rediscovering the joys of traditional Jewish bagels. From New York to Tel Aviv, Chicago to Boston, smaller bakeries are returning to traditional styles of this Jewish staple. Laura Trust, co-owner of the Boston-area Finagle a Bagel chain of bagel stores, is part of that trend. In 2016, she opened a new test kitchen to experiment with traditional recipes. Unlike her other locations, this new facility is kosher. Explaining her decision to go back to her culinary roots and start making old-fashioned, kosher bagels like her ancestors once enjoyed, she explains: “I think the timing is good in that bagels are having a bit of a renaissance, a resurgence” right now, concluding “that’s good for everyone.”

With a little effort, authentic bagels are possible to find and, with their chewy textures and rich flavors, are well worth the effort.


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