The many bagels of Boichik Bagels. (Photo/Lydia Daniller)
The many bagels of Boichik Bagels. (Photo/Lydia Daniller)

From ‘beigels’ in 1921 to bagels in 2023, we love ’em

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Jews and their bagels — New York or Montreal, poppy or plain, hand-shaped or rolling off a conveyor belt — we love them, and we always have.

While residents of the Bay Area once had to travel for a really good bagel, now we’re spoiled for choice, with bagel emporiums from Beauty’s to Boichik and from Poppy to Loveski. In 2021, the New York Times even ran the controversial article “The Best Bagels Are in California (Sorry, New York).”

We’ve been writing about them for a while, too. This paper’s first mention of a bagel (spelled “beigel” at that time) was in 1921, but from the 1940s on, references have been copious.

In 1958, a number of Jews in Alaska missed bagels so much they sent a letter of appeal that reached Oakland, and got results.

“Three forlorn Jewish families — 17 men, women and children — lonely and isolated on icy Kodiak Island in Alaska, have been made happy with the ‘touch of home’ which they have craved. The ‘touch’ is a shipment of lox and bagel, dill pickles, cream cheese, and a few religious materials, sent them by air through the efforts of the Armed Services Division of the Jewish Welfare Board.” (Note the bagels were listed first, the Judaica last.)

Jews yearning for their beloved bagels from far away was often a theme in the paper. In 1959, we published this gem of a headline: “Buddhist Bagel Baker Brings Sabbath Cheer to Hawaii’s Jewish Citizens.”

“A Buddhist bagel baker who got his recipe from the Jewish Bakers’ Association in New York City and got his customers originally from Jewish servicemen stationed in this Pacific paradise is looking forward to continued success in his strange role as Hawaii becomes the 50th state,” we explained.

“It all started when Jewish Chaplain Samuel Sobel of Hickam Air Force Base came around to Yun Yau Kam’s baking shop and explained to the Chinese baker the delight of a bagel. The genial baker said that Captain Sobel referred to them as a Sabbath treat. ‘He also said they could be used as a weapon if things got tough,’ he added.”

The baker evidently made and sold 50 dozen bagels each week:

“’Are our customers pleased? One of my customers recently told me they’re not great bagels, but man, they are good bagels,’ he said.”

But one person’s bagel is another’s cultural misstep.

In 1951, we announced a “Crisis in the South,” the south being Los Angeles:

“Hollywood almost suffered a major crisis recently. On the Warner Bros. set, director Felix Feist was preparing a New York street scene for the film, ‘Tomorrow Is Another Day,’ when he discovered that the bagel-peddler’s cart was loaded with the wrong type of bagels.

A Lender's bagels ad in our paper in 1975
A Lender’s bagels ad in our paper in 1975

Instead of the eastern type of bagel (large and pretzel-shaped), the prop man had loaded the cart with western-type bagels (small and donut-shaped). Everything had to stop until the prop man found some eastern-type bagels in a delicatessen on Los Angeles’ east side.”

Feist, who was from New York, wanted what are sometimes called Krakow bagels, or obwarzanek Krakowski, to make the scene realistic.

Another cultural crisis involving the bagel played out in Israel, we reported in 1973 via the London Jewish Chronicle:

“In the 1950s, when tourism to Israel was first getting off the ground, American visitors were hard put to find a bagel for breakfast. Lox — forget it. But surely the fledgling State could manage a simple little circle of joy with glazed exterior browned to a golden Miami tan.

“But no. Bagels had not made the long trip from Eastern Europe. Ashamed of the Diaspora connotations the harmless life-giving bagel evoked, the Sabras condemned it to die an ignoble death.” (It’s been resurrected more recently, however, as a trendy Tel Aviv treat.)

But what makes a bagel a bagel, exactly? We examined this in 1963:

“The lowly bagel at last has achieved a place of dignity and importance in the field of history. Its origin has been made the subject of a study by no less an authority than Dr. Frederick F. Fletcher, the eminent philologist.

“El Al Airlines recently called on him to research the bagel’s origin. The airline officials were annoyed by such questions and answers as: ‘Why does a bagel have a hole in the middle?’ ‘Because without a hole it wouldn’t be a bagel.’

“To make a long story short, the bagel was brought to Galicia by Austrian Jews from Vienna and from there it went to New York. Concludes the distinguished authority: ‘There is absolutely nothing originally Jewish in the bagel except its use at breakfast.’”

Bagels may not have started out Jewish, but they quickly became entrenched within the culinary identity of American Jews. A short piece in our paper from 1946 recounted a congregant telling his rabbi in Illinois that he was a “bagel and lox Jew” (in German, bauchjuden, or one of the “stomach Jews”).

While some people might be proud to be bagel-and-lox Jews, this writer was dismayed, saying it was not very Jewish at all.

“He put his finger on a very tragic condition in American Jewish life today. There are far too many bagel and lox Jews and they are too content to be just that. As for Jewish consciousness they have none. They may have a few Jewish affinities but these regrettably are matters of the palate or of sentiment or associations.”

We must respectfully disagree with this appraisal. Jews should be proud of their bagels, and of the fact that they are loved by not only all kinds of Jewish Americans, but all kinds of Americans.

As the Hawaiian baker Yun Yau Kam put it, “In our state of Hawaii where all races meet and mingle with full equality is there any reason why foods peculiar to certain religions cannot be enjoyed by all?”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.