A circular story

In probing bagel's origins, author delves into her Polish-US-Jewish roots.

bagel book 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bagel book 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread By Maria Balinska Yale University Press 288 pages; $25 Maria Balinska loves bagels and has been chewing on their significance for many years. Growing up in New Jersey, the author of The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, published last month by Yale University Press, Balinska confesses that she discovered bagels quite late in life. "I ate my first bagel in 1979 - a green one on St. Patrick's Day - in the college canteen at Princeton." Later, "Conscious of my low fellowship budget in graduate school at the University of Maryland, I ate bagels all the time," chuckles Balinska, currently editor of BBC Radio's World Current Affairs Department. When she won a one-year scholarship to study in Krakow, she searched out the economical and filling bread that had become a staple of her daily diet. "I saw that they had this braided bread, the obwarzanek, which resembled the bagel, and I began to wonder if there was any connection." Landing her first job in the early 1980s at the Institute of Jewish Affairs in London, then the research branch of the World Jewish Congress, Balinska specialized in American and French Jewry. However, bagels always remained in the back of her mind. "One of my colleagues from Eastern Europe and I had an ongoing joke about how we'd write a funny book on bagels that would include cartoons and be in the shape of one. This was when I started collecting all sorts of material." Apart from becoming a persnickety connoisseur of bagels, her study of the ring-shaped bread offered the 48-year-old Balinska a two-fold opportunity: that of not only discovering anew her American, but also her Polish and Jewish roots. Her father's family is Polish - part Jewish, part Catholic. "Both sides of my family were actively involved in Polish public and cultural life. My Jewish great-great grandfather established the Warsaw Philharmonic and his son, my great-grandfather, founded the Polish School of Hygiene. My gentile great-grandfather was leader of the Warsaw City Council. In a very modest way, I felt that looking at the bagel was an interesting mode in which to revisit Polish-Jewish history itself." Outlining how Italy, France, China and others all claim the bagel's origins "as theirs" in the first part of her book, Balinska's focus quickly turns to Poland, which she considers the Jewish bagel's probable home. Citing the policies set by the Jewish Council of Krakow in 1610, Balinska informs us that "bagels made their first documented appearance in celebrations marking the birth of a boy and his circumcision." However, circular objects, with their intimations of immortality, also figured in rituals associated with death. "Bagels became an integral part of Jewish mourning and, indeed, are to this day common fare at funerals." As Balinska emphasizes, "The bagel became a valued element in religious ceremonies while at the same time part of popular culture." In fact, from that point onward she says, "The bagel entered the canon of Jewish folklore." A figure who is inextricably linked to bagel folklore is none other than Poland's King Jan Sobieski. According to the myth, the bagel was created in his honor following his victory over the Turks in Vienna in 1683. Yet, the pairing of this Polish warrior king and a hole-shaped Jewish bread "is not only incongruous, it is also entirely fictitious," stresses Balinska. "We know that bagels were long in existence before the Battle of Vienna. Furthermore, I've never found anyone in Poland who told me this story." She hypothesizes that the myth was created by Polish Jews in the US who were extremely nostalgic about Sobieski - a ruler who had "energetically defended the Jews." Fast-forwarding to another period in Polish history, we ask Balinska why she maintains that "the bagel came of age politically in Poland's interwar period." "Bakers were the third largest group of Jewish artisans in Poland after tailors and tanners," she replies. "In the mid-1930s, according to the economist Ignacy Bornstein, 48 percent of all the country's bakeries were Jewish: In some cities in the east of Poland the figure was as high as 70 percent. Jewish trade unions began to operate in the open and Yiddish theater and music thrived. Moreover, Yiddishisms - like the word bajgiel instead of obwarzanek - crept into everyday Polish usage." Despite the interaction of Poles and Jews, as well as the idealism in Poland between the two world wars, the country's prevalent anti-Semitism did not subside. Falling to Nazi invasion before its 21st birthday, the era of Poland's Second Republic ended tragically with the overwhelming majority of its Jewish bakers and peddlers dying in the Holocaust. AS AN American living abroad, Balinska says that investigating the history of the bagel also allowed her "to discover anew what has made America great." The exodus of Eastern European Jews to the US in the late 1880s and early 1900s resulted in a string of Jewish bakeries on the Lower East Side in New York City, and their emergence subsequently played a role in the development of the Jewish labor movement in America. "In 1888, the United Hebrew Trades led by Morris Hillquit, along with other Jewish intellectuals, was determined to galvanize the workers on that side of town. By 1910, bagel bakers achieved great gains: a nine-hour working day and a minimum salary. By the 1950s, they were earning three times the median wage in New York City and had pension plans, health, dental and eyeglass insurance." The 1960s, however, is when bagels entered into mainstream American society. According to Balinska, "It was the right time in the sense that people were interested in Jewish culture, having healthier things to eat and into convenience, which led people to increasing shop at supermarkets." Additionally, the invention of the bagel-rolling machine and the emergence of dough preservatives also helped. Those who capitalized on the potential of bagels outside of the Jewish community were Harry Lender and his three sons, Sam, Murray and Marvin. Seeing the limitations of providing bagels solely to the New Haven Jewish community, the family entered the national frozen bagel market. "The Lenders, in particular Murray," says Balinska, "were extraordinary in the creativity of their marketing. Willy Evans, responsible for the Lenders' artistic promotion, told me how Murray 'lived bagels' and would call him up on Saturdays with all kinds of zany ideas. One of the first things they came up with was to transform the three Lender brothers into cartoon characters, which were a bit like Kellogg's Rice Krispies' Snap, Crackle and Pop." As the bagel continued its assimilation into American culture, the quintessentially Jewish product became the centerpiece of a special promotion initiated by El Al in the 1970s. "Introducing bagels, cream cheese and lox as a signature dish on their Sunday morning flights to Israel," explains Balinska, "the airline executives soon realized that their non-Jewish passengers - about a third of all customers - had no idea what a bagel was. Therefore, they created a booklet called 'El Al Looks into the Bagel,' which included everything one wanted to know about the bagel, such as the legends of its origin, tips on bagel etiquette and even what a person's bagel-slicing technique reveals about their character. It was a public relations masterstroke that generated so much interest that El Al established a bagel research center at its New York office." Why all the fuss about the bagel? "Well, on a very basic level they can provide a wonderful perspective on history. Food history is sometimes used to define cultures and their separateness, but more often than not it represents an obvious meeting point because people sit down and share it."