Is there anything that may yet unite this fractious nation? Earlier this week, Twitter delivered a definitive response, presenting a single image that brought together Americans of all faiths, political persuasions and dietary restrictions. It was a photograph of a box of bagels, purchased at a Panera in St. Louis, sliced not horizontally but vertically, as if they were so many loaves of bread.
The press, united, called this method of mutilating America’s favorite breakfast pastry “highly offensive” and the “worst thing since sliced bread.” Twitter’s most prominent rabbi, my friend Mordechai Lightstone, delivered an impassioned and emoji-laden tweet, thundering that “in the face of true anti-Semitism,” all Jews should come together to declare that bagels mustn’t be thusly abused. Wajahat Ali agreed: “As a Muslim,” the writer commiserated, “I can tell you this is haram. I stand in solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters who are in mourning.”
This display of unity is heartwarming, and God knows we can use some consensus these days. But the critics are all uniformly, unequivocally and absolutely wrong.
As a Jew of noble proportions, who lives life from schmear to schmear, I am giddy to side with the St. Louis slicer. In one masterful stroke of the knife, that nameless hero toiling behind the counter did something I never imagined possible: He or she made bagels interesting again.
If you think this statement is full of steam, consider the history of the bagel. Hand-rolled in Poland by famished Jews — the word itself comes to us courtesy of Yiddish — the baked benediction arrived in America in the late 19th century, when the Epsteins and the Cohens left Lodz for the Lower East Side. In New York, they hung the bagels from strings — hence the holes — and saw their favorite snack grow so popular that a bagel bakers’ union was soon formed. When the Local 338 went on strike in 1951, the New York Times wrote in panic about the city’s “bagel famine.” Those were tough times.
And then, like the Cohens’ and the Epsteins’ children, the bagel, too, began to feel at home everywhere in America, and soon a treat you could once find only in New York, Cleveland or anywhere else Jews congregated became a staple of the national cuisine. Not long ago, flying into Austin, I ambled through the airport only to stumble upon an outfit of Einstein Bros., a chain with hundreds of locations that brings the gospel of everything with cream cheese to corners of the world not traditionally known for their Yiddishkeit. It has 22 restaurants in Utah, for example, or roughly one for each of the state’s Jews.
Somewhere along the way, then, bagels began changing. As I argued in the newly published “The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List,” edited by Tablet Magazine’s editor Alana Newhouse, the bagel is now the least Jewish food in the world. Why? Because Einstein Bros. is owned by a German conglomerate that, also this week, learned that its founders were avid and richly compensated Nazis. Because the best bagels in New York, Absolute Bagels on the Upper West Side, are made by Thai immigrants, and the finest bagel chain in Montreal, St-Viateur, is run by a nice Italian boy. Because many Jews who haven’t the time and the patience for actual Jewish learning and engagement refer to themselves as “bagel Jews,” understanding that the pastry is full of yeast and fury but signifies nothing.
All this, I argued in the book, means that it's time for us Jews to bid the bagel farewell — it belongs to all of America now.
Which brings me back to St. Louis: Just as so many inventions and works of art owe their existence to some ecstatic error — think of Sir Alexander Fleming about to discard his used petri dish only to discover that the muck left on it, penicillin, was a mighty antibiotic — so we may owe this spark of culinary creativity to one countertop blunder. If the bagel, after all, is no longer a meaningfully Jewish food, why keep insisting on burdening it with lox, onions and other shtetel delicacies? Why not slice it like sandwich bread and enjoy its yeasty wonders with, say, a thick slab of cold cuts and — let’s go crazy — mayonnaise? You can call it sacrilegious all you want, but that, really, is how America works, accepting its immigrants’ food offerings and transforming them, by way of mystical national alchemy, into something new we can all enjoy. Like pizza with canned pineapple, say, or chocolate hummus.
Let the prudes wail on Twitter all they like: Tomorrow morning, as I walk into my favorite Manhattan bagel shop, I’m going to ask for my bagel sliced the new, all-American way.
Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and the co-host of its podcast, “Unorthodox.” He’s also a contributor to Tablet’s new book, “The 100 Most Jewish Foods: A Highly Debatable List.”