The best bagels are so much more than pieces of bread. For me, a solid bagel is an experience. A memory of cultural musings, the celebration of which, honors its centuries in existence with every bite.
Let’s be clear, I’m not talking about any old pre-sliced store-bought bagel here (sorry Lender’s). I mean really, who do you think you’re fooling Einstein Bros and Noah’s? There’s nothing “New York” about your “New York style” bagels. You might as well market them as Kaiser rolls with holes. They’re so cakey and light you should be making cake bagels? Cover one of your chocolate chip bagels with cream cheese frosting and stab a few candles around the perimeter. Goyim won’t know what hit them. [You can thank me later!]
I get it though. Bringing bagels mainstream is an entirely different bagel game, and I applaud the conglomerates and entrepreneurs for having the foreskin (I mean foresight) to make it what it is today. From Kraków Poland in 1610 to Beijing Bagels now, they’ve come a long way with your help—BRA-VO! I just wish you didn’t have to eliminate the most labor-intensive parts in the process—the skill that’s been passed down for generations. Didn’t you know it’s the salt from the blood, sweat and tears of the baker that make them so friggin good. Steaming them just won’t cut it. But I digress.
Now that we’ve eliminated fake bagels, or “faygels” as this faygelah calls them, we can talk about what’s left—awesome bagels! I’m talking about a bagel that is in its essence a block. A yeasted rock of wheat flour worked by callused hands. The perfect balance of tough and sleek on the outside and yet dense and chewy in. And it doesn’t matter that it’s just a ring of dough—because what’s most beautiful about an awesome bagel is in fact its simplicity. An infinite loop resembling life’s constant struggle, or for you Disney fanatics out there, the ongoing circle of life. In a way, it’s a baker’s response to the Mobius strip.
The best bagels are so much more than a shape and the sum of a few basic ingredients though. They embody an oppressed minority. A race that for centuries has overcome hardship and expulsion time and time again. A people, like bagels, who have developed a thick skin for protection, because they too have been boiled and baked. I’ll spare you the gory concentration camp analogies, but if you’ve ever been to an Orthodox black tie New York wedding in July, you can draw more palatable comparisons I’m sure.
It’s this old-school technique formed on the sweat-filled brows of our Eastern European settlers converging in tenements along the Atlantic shores of North America at the turn of the 20th century that gave birth to a sustenance so many adults, children and Asians rely on today. It’s the trade of our great-great-bubbies and zadies who were tasked with making the dough, shaping it into bagels so they can proof for 12 hours, just to schlep cold water to the stove to heat up so they can boil the bagels, just to fish them out and slap them on baking sheets in a preheated oven…. “oy vey!” I’m tired just thinking about it and I happen to love baking. That’s why bagels, and not matzo, are the bread of affliction!
It’s this daily routine of our ancestors that has genetically passed down to my fellow Jews and I, manifesting itself in a people who tend to be slightly more complicated than some, difficult to deal with at times, and yet exquisitely resilient and practical. Have you explored the endless combinations of what you can put on a bagel? It’s about the same number of ways my family can start an argument. Amazing!
And if you’re not hungry, they have a practical use. I’ve used them as bookends and doorstops! Come to think of it, bookend and doorstop are two adjectives that practically sum up the personality of some overbearing Jewish moms I know!
That’s why I wear the “Boil then bake or end up with cake” bagel t-shirt. Not just to commemorate a food I love, but to pay respect to a people I love. Those who have survived centuries of persecution intact, only to emerge a little thicker skinned than before. Like the current population of Boca Raton.
The I Love Bagels T-Shirt
I don’t hate bagels that are steamed and baked. No matter how cake-like they are, they’re still bread, it’s still food, and I’m still a fatty. But it’s that extra effort, that additional step, that passion and skill of an artisan that sets the best bagels apart from the rest. Could be the water, but who really knows?
Bagels bring us together as a people for weddings, funerals, bar-mitzvahs, and brisses. Occasions full or joy. Days plagued with sadness. And yet they’re always the same—we’re always the same. This shirt is my pledge to sometimes choose the road less traveled and the path of greater resistance, because the journey is what we will talk about at the dinner table in years to come. This shirt is my reminder that we must not celebrate life’s challenges that prevented us from a desired result, but the amazing payoff and sense of accomplishment we get from overcoming them. Because that’s what we do. As Jews, as Americans, as American Jews, as Humans.
And that’s what will define us for generations to come. And that’s what we must never forget.
“Je suis Charlie”
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Have a favorite bagel? Know where we can find the best bagels? Write to us or leave a comment below.