The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread
by Maria Balinska
(Yale University Press, 220 pp., $24)
Who would think that a history of the Jews could be written through the story of the bagel? This cogent little book delivers the taste and texture of the Jewish experience through the bread that has traveled with Ashkenazi Jews over time.
Maria Balinska, a BBC journalist of Polish Jewish and gentile ancestry, became interested in the bagel while studying at Jagellonian University in Kraków, mainly because she missed it; the obwarzanek, a Polish round bread, was not the same. The missing bagel almost feels emblematic of her search for the missing Jews who once constituted 10% of prewar Poland. “Produced principally by Jewish bakers and sold mainly by Jewish pedlars,” she writes, “the bagel was a snack available on almost every street corner in almost every town in Poland, consumed and enjoyed by people of every ethnicity and class.”
Bagels are mentioned in references to Jews settling in Poland as early as the 15th century. In fact, disputes with guilds over who could make round, white breads reveals much about the position of Jews—welcomed by monarchs and resented by local bakers—as Poland positioned itself to become the leading grain producer of Europe.
Through art, folklore, and song, Balinska follows the path of the bagel. With the worldwide depression of the 1930s—and Jewish poverty compounded in Poland by boycotts of Jewish businesses—bagel peddling became a symbol of Jewish impoverishment.
Eastern European Jews brought the bagel to America in the mass migration that began in the 1880s. On New York’s Lower East Side, the Jewish baker’s union, including bagel makers, made labor history in 1909 with its successful seven-week strike for better working conditions. The achievement of the Jewish bakers, Balinska writes, “ushers in a period during which the Jewish labour movement as a whole came to play a leading role among American unions.” But as late as 1950, the bagel was still largely unknown outside New York. All that changed in the 1960s and 70s with the aggressive marketing of the Lender family, which introduced frozen bagels at a time when American homes were routinely equipped with freezers and toasters. The goal of its advertising was to shed the bagel’s image as a Jewish food. As Murray Lender remarked, “It’s a roll with personality. If you must be ethnic you can call it a Jewish English muffin with personality.”
The story of the “bagelization” of America is a saga in itself. And in an ironic twist, Balinska finds a café in Kraków endeavoring to reintroduce the bagel—as “one of the most popular breads in America.”
Emancipation: How Liberating Europe’s Jews from the Ghetto Led to Revolution and Renaissance
by Michael Goldfarb
(Simon & Schuster, 408 pp., $30)
Americans generally relate the term “emancipation” to the liberation of African-American slaves during the Civil War—but Michael Goldfarb, a London-based journalist and former bureau chief of NPR, uses it to refer to the single most important phenomenon in modern Jewish history: the Jewish struggle for citizenship in the emerging states of modern Europe.
Revolutionary France became the first nation to emancipate its Jewish residents on September 28, 1791—but this historic moment had been preceded by years of heated debate over whether Jews could be “ameliorated” sufficiently to be French citizens. Viewed as “a nation within a nation,” Jews had their own autonomous governing structures, different language, dress, customs, trades, and religion. Even advocates of emancipation required Jews to change, and the Jewish communities of France (first Sephardim, then Ashkenazim) basically accepted their terms: Jews would strive to differ only in religion; they would become “Frenchmen of the Mosaic Persuasion.”
Napoleon carried the values of the French Revolution across Europe—literally breaking down ghetto walls and emancipating the Jews—but in most places, their newly won civil rights were revoked upon Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. In German states, where social integration had already begun, a generation of assimilated, educated Jews found themselves stranded when emancipation was withdrawn, often unable to work in professions for which they had trained, such as law, academia, and civil service. Some German Jews left the country; others attempted to remake themselves in a variety of ways, from religious reform (all the modern denominations of Judaism were born in this period, as part of the quest for emancipation) to conversion.
Gabriel Riesser, a leading advocate for Jewish emancipation and a member of one of the first Reform temples, rejected baptism for the sake of civil rights: “Nobody has ever obtained the esteem of others by begging for it,” he wrote. “The prerequisite for the esteem of others is self-esteem.” An elected delegate to the Frankfurt Parliament during the Revolution of 1848, Riesser helped draft a constitution for Germany. When the revolution failed, Jewish emancipation had to wait twenty years for the unification of the German state under Bismarck.
In his excellent popular history, Goldfarb narrates this story in sweeping strokes, relying on the published studies of historians. A host of personalities come to life—Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and Moses Hess; Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka; Theodor Herzl, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein—described with a quote borrowed from French journalist Bernard Lazare: “Every Jew has his system, his idea of the world, his economic and social theory, his means of solving the problem of Jewish wretchedness, of anti-Semitism. He is a great builder of doctrines.”
Goldfarb illuminates the tensions of generations of European Jews living in societies where emancipation had to be won, where anti-Semitism continued to flourish, and where modern Jews now asked themselves, Who am I? What makes me Jewish? These questions remain at the heart of the Jewish identity crisis in “modernity”—the era that began with Emancipation.
The Modern Men’s Torah Commentary: New Insights from Jewish Men on the 54 Weekly Torah Portions
edited by Jeffrey K. Salkin
(Jewish Lights, 331 pp., $24.99)
Why a men’s Torah commentary, when the traditional rabbinic commentaries are all by men? “The great, often unspoken crisis facing modern liberal Judaism is the disengagement of its men,” writes Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin. Men, he believes, “need more and different entryways into Jewish study.” This book presents a paradigm for studying Torah with a greater consciousness of the issues that concern modern men.
With an impressive roster of contributors—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox rabbis as well as professors of psychiatry, literature, and journalism—this collection uses the weekly Torah portions to discuss men’s lives as fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers; different aspects of their public, personal, and working lives; ways of dealing with mentoring, aging, health issues, loss, and love. As Rabbi David Polish puts it in “Mensching Up,” his d’var Torah on the adult encounter of Joseph and his brothers: “The whole saga is about the lot of them—our fathers, our brothers—growing, becoming menschen .... Perhaps we need to hear their story in a way our sisters do not.”
Good for the Jews: A Novel
by Debra Spark
(University of Michigan Press, 272 pp., $24)
Is it good for the Jews?” The title of Debra Spark’s novel uses a familiar expression for putting Jewish security at the center of every issue. It also sums up the different worldviews of two generations. Mose Sheinbaum, the 60-something hero of the book, judges all events by this litmus test. His 25-year-old niece, Ellen, refuses to view the world through his uni-dimensional lens. “What year do you think it is?” she asks him in one of their bantering exchanges. “It’s 1939. It’s always 1939,” he responds.
Loosely based on the biblical book of Esther, with characters that match all the main characters in the Purim story—Ellen for Esther, Mose for Mordecai, Alex for Ahasuerus, Valerie for Vashti, and Hyman Clark for Haman—the novel reads like a modern parody of the Purim story.
Mose is an unconventional and much beloved teacher at a progressive high school in Madison, Wisconsin. When a new principal, Hyman Clark, comes to the school, he and Mose get off to a rocky start, and Mose suspects that anti-Semitism is the reason. Ellen is in a position to help him; she is in a relationship with Alex, the superintendent of schools, a divorced man seventeen years her senior. Alex adores her; Ellen is young, innocent, and eager to please.
When Alex promotes Hyman to the position of assistant superintendent of schools, Mose insists that Ellen make Alex aware of Hyman’s actions and what he considers anti-Semitic behavior—such as inviting a “peace group” to speak at a school assembly that lambastes Israel as “a racist Zionist state.”
Set against the backdrop of Israel’s war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, this contemporary remake of the biblical tale explores the modern faces of anti-Semitism.
Bonny V. Fetterman is literary editor of Reform Judaism magazine.
Books marked with this icon signify that they have been recommended for discussion groups—including Reform Movement-wide discussion on the “News & Views of Reform Jews” blog—as part of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Jewish adult literacy initiative. Visit rj.org/books to see readers’ personal perspectives and to add your own.