ReadTheSpirit has published hundreds of online stories and reviews, as well as a growing list of
inspirational books, but we really are devoting all of these efforts
toward one goal: Spiritual connection.
In tough times, we want
you to know that you can stop by ReadTheSpirit and always find something
interesting, inspiring and newsy that will connect with your life — and
energize the way we face our spiritual challenges together.
So, at this
year-end “Holiday” season, we’re blending themes and styles for our many, diverse readers. Stay
tuned, because we’re also going to bring you a multi-part “Christmas
story” next week. But, this year, Hanukkah begins before Christmas at sundown on Sunday, December 21.
the Jewish year, Hanukkah is a minor festival, not nearly as important
as the High Holy Days or Passover, for example, but Hanukkah nevertheless is a key holiday in American culture. There’s a lot we all can learn from the observance. It’s the
story of a small group of devout Jews thousands of years ago who
eventually won their religious freedom against steep odds. Because of
the Hanukkah victory, Judaism was preserved and, for Christians, the
faith remained in a pure form so that Jesus could grow up schooled in
Judaism — an essential element for Christians’ holiday story as well.
TODAY, we’re kicking off our holiday blend of stories with two offerings. CLICK HERE to jump to Christmas memories from the actress Dixie Carter, who stars in a new Hallmark Channel movie this weekend about a blended family trying to survive the holidays.
STAY HERE for our Conversation With BBC News Producer Maria Balinska,
the author of the brand new book: “The Bagel, The Surprising History of
a Modest Bread.”
As surprising as this may sound to you, the bagel
is a colorful window into the evolving nature of Jewish culture especially in
Europe and North America.
And, here’s what’s so great about exploring threads of faith like this that run through the fabric of our culture: The story of bagels in America also is a part of American Baby Boomer experience, whatever your faith may be. Like a lot of other Baby Boomers, I vividly recall discovering the exotic delight of bagels in the early 1970s and watching this distinctive treat go mainstream throughout my own adult life. Similarly, Jewish Americans have moved more prominently into the American mainstream during those decades.
For another take on on a similar theme, jump back to our Monday mini-reviews of great new books for young-hearted readers and check out Arie Kaplan’s “From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books,” which is a gorgeously illustrated overview of the influence of Jewish immigrants on this powerful popular art form. Arie’s book is published by the prestigious Jewish Publication Society.
Maria Balinska’s book is published by Yale University Press. You can click on the Amazon link below and order a copy of her book to enjoy more fully. Maria begins her book in Europe with some important chapters of bagel history that, even as a journalist specializing in religion for many years, were completely new to me. But let me give you a little taste of connections she makes just within the past century or so:
“The bagel arrived in America together with hundreds of Jewish bakers who were part of the massive wave of immigration into the United States between 1881 and 1914, and soon made its presence felt in Jewish immigrant literature. It played a part, too, in the long struggle to organize a lasting Jewish bakers’ union, a union whose achievements have been overshadowed by the far larger story of the garment workers’ movement. … When technology caught up and a bagel machine was invented, it did so at the same time as Americans were opening their kitchens to so-called ethnic foods and their televisions to Jewish comedians. … One family of bakers, the Lenders, jumped on the bandwagon and ended up as the country’s first bagel millionaires. …
“It is a special and curious story. The bagel, despite its modest stature, manages to bridge cultural divides, rescue kings from relative obscurity, and to challenge received wisdoms. At the same time, the bagel is incapable of taking itself too seriously. Humor always lurks nearby.”
HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS of our Conversation With Maria Balinska, Editor of BBC Radio’s World Current Affairs Department in London.
DAVID: Maria, explain a little about your work for the BBC.
MARIA: I run a team that produces specialist foreign-affairs programming for radio and also for our text online reporting — and increasingly still photos and video. Media is converging.
DAVID: Your book takes readers pretty much through a Europe-to-America story, not so much to the UK.
MARIA: I consider myself American although I have lived here for 23 years. I now have dual British and American citizenship but I definitely consider myself an American. The book was motivated by my American background and also the Polish-Jewish background in my family. I’ve been thinking about doing this book for a long time.
DAVID: Well, now we know a little about you. Perhaps we should help readers understand: What’s a bagel? Simple question, I guess. But what do we say about this internationally famous food. It’s a round bread with a hole in the middle, right? But that’s not all. It’s made by both a boiling and a baking process. And it’s not supposed to be hard. Is that about right?
MARIA: Yes, that’s what we think of as a bagel now. There are other boiled and baked ring-shaped breads in the world. Bagels also have changed over time. If we could go back 70 years ago in eastern Europe, the bagels would have been a lot denser and thicker than what we think of as bagels today.
Today’s bagel was developed in the United States and it’s partly because of the ingredients available to bakers. American wheat flour has a higher gluten content, which makes bagels chewier. And with the development of bagel sandwiches, we got bigger bagels. In my research, I did find accounts from late 19th-Century Poland that talk about the crustiness of a good bagel and how opening it up reveals a soft interior and steam comes out. Accounts say that the bagel, a day later, still could be eaten but then you’d have to dip it in tea in order to eat it.
DAVID: I can remember from my own history classes and the books of historians like Fernand Braudel that the development of everyday foods like bread was a very practical response to the need to keep the food value of grains from spoiling over time.
MARIA: That’s right. Ring-shaped breads go back to Roman times. They were popular with soldiers because they were easy to carry. The Romans moved everywhere and carried bread with them, so you can see that this story just rolls on everywhere. Sorry! Puns are almost unavoidable when writing about bagels. But this story does roll so many different places around the world. I didn’t try to follow all those stories.
DAVID: I think you made a great choice. The book is quick to read and connects lots of historical and cultural dots. We learn a lot about our own world reading this history.
You do argue in the book that Poland — or the lands that were Poland at one point in history — played a big role in the development of bagels and the association of bagels with Jewish communities.
MARIA: In the 13th and 14th Centuries you had a great migration into Polish cities that were just developing. Poland was a place of rural communities and peasants and nobility and the kings of Poland for a time wanted to develop cities. They needed craftsmen and merchants. A lot of people came from what we would now call Germany into this region. Among them were Jews who first came in the 13th Century. They were given certain written privileges in this new home. What’s really interesting is that they were specifically given the right to touch bread.
DAVID: To work with bread. To sell bread to the community.
MARIA: The handling of bread is a very emotional topic for Christians historically, because it has connection to communion and also is connected to stories told against Jews. Some years later, after the Jewish bakers came to Poland, there also is a period when Polish bishops tell people that they shouldn’t buy these products from Jews. When you look into this, you can see that Jewish-baked products were gaining favor and there was real competition.
DAVID: So even the bishops were taking sides in a competitive market. The bagel seems to have risen and fallen throughout its history. In your book, you tell us that there were times when bagels were associated with poverty.
MARIA: Right. It was from the mid 19th Century. At that time, there were bagel peddlers who were poor people trying to make a living by selling this cheaper food.
I found one account that says a rabbi in a small town could only afford in the 1880s to buy a two-day-old bagel for dinner. Bagels were so cheap that everybody could buy them at some point.
It became such a symbol of poverty that academics studying conditions sometimes used data on bagel peddlers as a sort of example of the state of the economy. When you can’t do anything else to make money, what do you do? You peddle things. There were lots of other things that people peddled. But the bagel peddlers became the touchstone of destitution.
DAVID: The widespread appeal of bagels — their central role in daily life — is one reason that bagel bakers played such a pioneering role in American labor history. I think most Americans who know a little bit about our history have heard of the tragic fire at New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. That was a landmark in the American labor movement. But you explain in your book that the garment workers’ movement might have been tougher if the bagel bakers hadn’t pioneered in this field.
MARIA: On the Lower East Side of New York at the beginning of the 20th Century you had a lot of Jewish bakers and among other things they were making bagels under horrible conditions working 15 to 18 hours a day. Workers actually lived in the bakeries. There were cockroaches and rats.
The garment workers played a very important role in the establishment of the labor movement in the United States. They were a much larger group than the Jewish bakers. But in 1908 and 1909, the Jewish bakers worked in solidarity with the general bakers union and called a strike. At the end of the strike, which had been supported by almost the entire Jewish community on the Lower East Side, they managed to win their demands.
Their victory led to a huge parade with this enormous loaf of bead carried on the backs of a number of Jewish bakers. It was proof that workers could demand more rights and, indeed, in the following years others did so.
This worked in 1908 and 1909 because everybody eats bread and everybody was aware that these bakers were on strike for months.
DAVID: Now, the lowly bagel has come a long way. It’s popular in upscale coffee-and-sandwich shops. There are popular bagel concoctions that would make a Kosher bakery or deli owner cringe: like ham and cheese together on a bagel? A sure sign this food has gone mainstream in American culture.
MARIA: We still say that pizza is Italian, but it’s only sort of Italian really. Bagels now have become an industrial product. They come with all kinds of flavorings and combinations these days.
But what’s interesting is that the bagel continues to be used in Jewish cultural conversations and stories — like the rabbi I quote at the very end of the book who asked his congregation why the bagel is so Jewish.
DAVID: That’s a great way to conclude our conversation. This is from a New Year’s sermon a few years ago by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut.
Here’s how you described what turned out to be a series of sermons by the rabbi using the bagel metaphor:
“Why,” he asked in his New Year sermons, “does the bagel stand out, at least among Ashkenazi Jews, as the quintessential Jewish food? And then it hit me. It’s the hole.” And so he continues arguing that the hole is not just about “the yearning, the hunger, the dissatisfaction, the fear, the emptiness, the depression, the anger and the mortality. The significance of the hole, what makes it Jewish, is also how it is filled. A hole can be a tragedy, but “we arise from the shiva (mourning) bench and remember our dead not with endless bitterness and regret but with … acts of kindness … not to deny tragedy — rather to grow from it.” The bagel’s roundness is about inclusiveness — “the Jewish ideal of the synthesis of alone and together.”
“Round foods,” concluded the rabbi on the Day of Atonement, “that’s our response to blood and swastikas. A delicious honey dipped challah. And a bagel with a hole.”
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