The Bagel

By MARIA BALINSKA

Journalist Maria Balinska is so smitten with her topic that she’s as heartfelt describing the 1980s “holey war” between Lender’s and Sara Lee for dominance of the American frozen-bagel market as she is recounting the tragic fate of Jewish bakers in Nazi-occupied Poland. While she traces the bagel’s possible Chinese and Italian roots, her quirky cultural history really begins in Poland, where the bread product had prestige in the 17th century but was a symbol of destitution in the 20th, when impoverished bagel peddlers were a common sight on street corners until the Holocaust devastated the country’s Jewish population. Many of the Jews who escaped Europe before the war ended up on New York City’s Lower East Side, bringing the bagel with them. Balinska argues that while Jewish bakers are not as celebrated in American labor history as their counterparts in the garment industry, they played a significant role in promoting workers’ rights. In the decades following WWII, the well-paid, skilled hand rollers lost their clout as bagel making, inevitably, became mechanized. By the time the savvy Lender brothers introduced their mass-produced product — which many aficionados don’t consider a bagel at all — the stage was set for the bagel, like many Jews themselves, to “shed its ethnicity” and “become all-American.” Balinska’s captivating story concludes, ironically enough, back in Poland, where the bagel has recently returned “not as a Jewish favorite but as the embodiment of an envied American way of life.”