For Yom Kippur, a Bagel Crash Course

Early tomorrow morning, my grandma will rush to Bagel Boss to order three dozen before the lines get long. By Saturday after sundown, I’ll be carefully crafting my proportions of butter, cream cheese, tuna, and egg salad, so I can be sure that my cinnamon raisin and sesame seed bagels end up flawless (almost flawless… they are a day old).

Yom Kippur, which begins tomorrow at sundown, is one of the two Jewish High Holy Days. The holiday falls ten days after the Jewish New Year, and it is a day of repentance, during which Jewish people pray, reflect and fast from sundown to sundown. After the holiday, families and friends gather to break the 25-hour fast.

Around the U.S., a Yom Kippur Break Fast would be incomplete without bagels and schmear. Comforting, filling and requiring minimal preparation, they are the perfect food to eat after a day of fasting. It’s not uncommon for hungry Jews to eat two or three bagels the night after Yom Kippur. Many of my family members can even stomach four.

With Yom Kippur quickly approaching, I thought it would be nice to give some attention to the bagel. We all eat them all the time, but how often do we stop think about our precious bagels’ history before scarfing down that first bite?

There are two schools of thought on the origin of the bagel. In her article “From the Big Bagel to the Big Roti,” published in Gastropolis, Jennifer Berg writes that according to popular belief, a Jewish baker developed bagels in Vienna, Austria, in 1683. The bagels resembled a round stirrup (bugel, in German) and were presented to Polish king John III Sobieski as a thank-you for saving Austria from Turkish invaders.

Others believe bagels originated in Krakow, just a few hundred miles east of Vienna. In her book The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, Maria Balinska argues that bagels may be a relative of the obwarzanek, a round, twisted, bagel-like product that’s been sold on the streets of Krakow for centuries. Bagels (from the Yiddish word beigen, to bend) were first referenced in 1610 in the Jewish Council of Krakow’s regulations about how much a family should spend for a bris celebration.

Regardless of their birthplace, bagel authorities agree that Jewish immigrants brought bagels to New York with the mass migration of the late 19th century and early 20th century. Originally a Jewish food, they eventually expanded to represent New York as a whole. Lender’s started selling its first packaged bagels in 1927, but bagels really took off with their introduction of frozen ones in the 1960s. By the 1980s, bagels with schmear were as much a part of the classic American breakfast as eggs with toast.

Here in New York, eating a packaged bagel is like reheating DiGiorno Pizza. Whether or not you believe it’s all in the water, there’s no arguing against the fact that we have the best bagels in the world.

If you plan on buying yourself a few dozen for the holiday, too, make sure to hit up your favorite deli early tomorrow, because the best of the best shut their doors well before sundown.

Marissa Finn

When Marissa was a little girl, she threw her bottle and pacifier down the stairs and begged for "real food." More than two decades later, her passion for real food has grown into a part of her everyday life. Marissa graduated in May 2014 with a Masters in Food Studies from NYU, where she focused her research on food politics and food culture. She has taught children’s nutrition, gardening and cooking classes for the past four years, and she will spend the next academic year as a FoodCorps service member in Guilford County, North Carolina.

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