Maria Balinska successfully shows in her sprightly book “The Bagel” that one can learn some aspects of Jewish history by studying the story of this famous doughnut shaped bread.
Keeping a light touch, she says that a “biographer of the bagel” must embrace “the laughter and the affection which this bread inevitably inspires.”
Jewish immigrants brought the bagel to America from Poland. Recently, its popularity having spread throughout the United States, the bagel has now returned to Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe.
Although distinctively Jewish, the bagel has some cousins among other groups. For example, Puglia in Italy has “a boiled and baked ring-shaped bread called the tarallo.” In other parts of Italy, there are ring-shaped breads, and in China, there is “golden circular bread called the girde.” A bagel-like bread in Poland goes back to 1394, having arrived there by way of Germany.
By the 17th century, the bagel became important among Jews who ate it at births and circumcisions. They also gave it as gifts to midwives. Later, its significance extended to the entire life cycle when it was eaten at funerals.
In the 18th century, the Baal Shem Tov promoted Chasidism with parables about the bagel. Jewish folklore and Yiddish writers referred to bagel bakers with varying degrees of approval and disapproval.
In the early 20th century, bakeries became the venues where Zionists and Bundists debated and promoted their views. The book goes on to detail what happened to bagel bakers and bagel peddlers up to the destruction of Polish Jewry by the Nazis.
The scene shifts to America, especially the Lower East Side of New York where bakery workers formed strong unions as bagels became important in
everyday life. Bakers entered into judicial history when one of them, Joseph Lochner, won a Supreme Court decision that ruled that New York State had no right to limit the number of hours worked. Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dissent eventually won the day in the late 1930s when the Lochner ruling was overturned and the power of government to regulate working conditions was recognized. Successful strikes by the bakery workers unions, supported by the influential Yiddish paper, the Forward, strengthened their hand and set a pattern for the labor movement. Within the bakery workers union, there was a special section for bagel bakers who soon established themselves as the highest
paid workers in the baking industry.
In the 1960s, when technology began to eliminate the skill requirement in baking bagels, the bagel bakers’ union lost strength. This development coincided with the gradual acceptance of the bagel as American, not just Jewish. The new markets for bagels, combined with mechanization of their production, led to the demise of the union. At the same time, the Lender family revolutionized bagel production and distribution by introducing frozen bagels. The sale of bagels spread across the country, aided by the Jewish comedians who made bagel jokes on radio and television. In 1986, two years after selling the company to Kraft, the makers of Philadelphia Cream Cheese, Marvin Lender designed a bagel factory in Mattoon, Ill., that could turn out a million bagels a day. Balinska concludes, “The bagel had become all-American.”
She adds a postscript chapter in which she discusses the claim by Montreal bagel bakers that their product is the authentic one. She also says something about the British bagel, having introduced the book by saying that she now lives in London where she is especially fond of the bagels made in the Jewish bakeries of Golders Green, a London suburb.
Balinska works for the BBC where she is an editor and a documentary filmmaker, specializing in Eastern Europe and the United States. She has produced a delightful book that will enchant and educate its readers.
“The Bagel” is scheduled for publication in
So take this unique opportunity to learn about one of the foods customary to the Jewish people. After reading “The Bagel” you will find out you know much more about this bakery item — maybe even more than you want to know. But you will enjoy reading a book on such an interesting topic. So read up, learn the history and the stories and then amaze your friends with your knowledge of this circular Jewish tradition.
(Morton I. Teicher is the founding dean, Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)