On the Jewish food scene: Thinking about bagels

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

My older brother, who lives in northern New Jersey, visited recently and brought me “monster bagels from outer space,” as my mother used to call them. (Anything big in my family was referred to as a monster “something” from outer space. No, I have no idea when or why this started. It’s one of the least quirky quirks of the many my family has.) The bagels put local bagels to shame and not just because of their size: they are substantial and chewy. You know you’ve eaten something when you’ve finished one of those bagels. 

However, I do have a friend who doesn’t like them. She actually prefers the ones that local stores make. Perhaps that’s because she grew up Jewish in Pennsylvania and real New York City bagels were not available in her youth. I, on the other hand, experienced New York City bagels when we visited relatives. After leaving my aunt’s family in Queens, we would stop at a local bagel store so we could bring some back to Endwell. While the other patrons asked for one or two bagels, my parents ordered a dozen each of several different kinds. 

Believe it or not, not everyone agrees on which city has the best bagel. There is a big rivalry between New York City and Montreal. Yes, some folks actually believe that Montreal’s bagels are better than those of New York. OK, that statement is unfair and biased: since I’ve never tasted bagels made in Montreal, I’m not qualified to comment on them. It’s just hard to believe that they could be better than the ones made in New York.

If you think I’m exaggerating about the rivalry, I’m not. It’s even made national headlines. For example, an article about it has appeared in The New York Times. Authors about the rivalry have come down on different sides about which bagel is the best. It’s obvious this is an emotional issue for these writers. After all, bagels are not just food: they represent history and culture, at least to Jews.

When I was in rabbinical school, we had a discussion in one class about what would happen if the whole world suddenly decided to become Jewish. One person was unhappy with that occurring because he feared beer and pizza would then become traditional Jewish food, rather than bagels and lox. (I don’t like beer, but the idea of pizza as a Jewish food didn’t bother me.) A few years later, after I spent 10 months in Israel, I would have had an interesting reply to his thought: One of my Jewish Israeli roommates refused to even taste one of the bagels I’d bought because she thought it was weird. Hmm, does that mean the next debate will be about which of these two is the quintessential Jewish food: a bagel or a falafel? I’m willing to be one of the taste-testers for that event! Just let me know when you organize it.