The Bagel and Me

by Melissa Morgan

A good bagel is chewy. Glossy with egg wash, yeasty and dense, boiled in the sweet water of the tristate area, a good bagel is essential. If you must, use a toaster only sparingly, please. A bagel should not be crunchy, chas v'shalom.

There is a bagel for everyone. Blueberry, pumpernickel, sesame, the iconic Everything. My dad's bagel of choice is the cinnamon raisin, lightly toasted. The intoxicating scent of a warm cinnamon raisin bagel brings me back to the lunch stops we’d make after we'd gone to shul on Saturday morning, a ritual we both resented and completed less often than the Rabbi would have liked.

There are bagels for those of us with extravagant tastes: rainbow, for the hipsters, bearded and kvetching like their Hasidic counterparts with whom they share the Brooklyn terrain. And there are bagels that are extravagant in ordinary ways. My friend Rebecca (like the foremother) once spent 18 dollars on a single bagel with both lox and whitefish on the Upper West Side. Worth it, she'd argue (perhaps to the chagrin of her foremothers). Eighteen dollars—l'Chaim!

Growing up, bagels were an omnipresent feature of my Jewish life. Family Hanukkah brunches, bar mitzvah luncheons, weekend spreads in the Hebrew school class where I learned to wrap tefillin—bagels. Always bagels. And their prevalence persists. The most popular question regarding any Jewish Student Association event is usually, Will there be bagels?

Bagels are ordinary, but they are special.

Before an important test or big assignment, my mom would pick up bagels. Bagels made an appearance when I'd have friends sleep over, as a celebration when school was dismissed early, as a weekend treat that provided welcome respite from the usual cereal or toast of the regular week. For both stressful and welcomed reasons, bagels have been a constant comfort, always there for me, always satisfying, soothing, and symbolic.

Bagels are ordinary, but they are sacred.

The near-Talmudic wisdom goes: Don’t cut corners on the lox platter. Bagels from other parts of the country can never come close. Regard bagels from the likes of Starbucks and Trader Joe’s with suspicion. Surely one of the 613 mitzvot reads, Thou shalt not consume bagels that come from plastic bags in the grocery store, unless you really have no choice because they've been bought for you and it'd be a shame to let them go to waste, in which case go right ahead. The lack of truly good bagels in Georgetown has been among the most emotionally taxing elements of my time living in DC, certainly the most daily of afflictions. (Try Bethesda Bagels in DuPont Circle or Bullfrog Bagels in Capitol Hill for the closest approximation I've gotten my hands on ‘round these parts.)

Bagels have also suffered at the hands of those looking to cut carbs by—oy, this hurts me—scooping them. The bagel has fallen victim to some who would dig out its most delicious innards and apply only the thinnest coat of cream cheese, a health-conscious but borderline blasphemous move. At the Jewish day camp where I spent every summer and then worked as a counselor for a combined 11 years, a fellow counselor informed me that one bagel is equivalent to five slices of bread. If there's any validity to this proclamation, so be it. Bagels are gluten-heavy. They come from those preparing for the Eastern European winter. They are carbloading for the diaspora.

The bagel is my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, the pride of the region I grew up in, the assimilationist yet character-retaining symbol of the American Jewish experience itself.

Perhaps the most important presence of the bagel in my life has been its annual place as the break fast meal on Yom Kippur. Throughout my childhood, the day was spent atoning for sins in the back of the congregation and then languidly on the sofa until my family and I would head to our cousins’ house for dinner, a hunger-induced combination of giddy and bickering (a solidly Jewish mixture of holiday emotions).

Yom Kippur is a day of bitterness—we repent, we atone, we think about our sins, we think about our sins some more, and we hunger for the bagel in the distance that will be ours after sundown. Many Jewish holidays are tinged with bitterness, but Yom Kippur is not bitterness alone—it is an opportunity to do better, to become better in the next year. It allows us to have conversations with ourselves, to grapple with the less-than-savory things we've done and thought and to ask how we can work toward justice and righteousness, to banish the bitterness we have become such experts at experiencing (and feeling) over the millennia. After all, we do not reflect on the evil we cause and confront for nothing.

The day is bitter so that we can have something better. As sundown finally arrives, the chewy, beloved bagel never tastes so sweet.

Michele Dale