In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, Jewish Treats has chosen to feature the food that many feel epitomizes Jewish culture: the bagel!

The actual Jewish origin of this food is, to be honest, debatable. One story claims that the bagel was first shaped like a stirrup to honor Poland’s King Jan Sobieski. However, there are references to the bagel predating King Jan, such as a note from Krakow, Poland, stating that bagels should be given to pregnant women.

So how did the bagel become Jewish? Some postulate that the bagel became popular among Jews because the dough could be prepared on Friday, allowed to slow-rise over Shabbat, and be quickly and easily boiled and baked on Saturday night.

The fame of the New York Bagel is, perhaps, a byproduct of the labor movement. In the early 1900s, 300 Jewish bagel makers established the Bagel Bakers Local 338, which contracted agreements with 36 bakeries in New York City. Membership in the union was passed down from father to son, as were the secrets of bagel production. This monopoly on bagel production lasted until the 1960s, when Daniel Thompson invented a bagel making machine and sold it to Lender’s Bagel Bakery, who specialized in flash-frozen bagels.

It should be noted here that a distinctive style of bagel–smaller, sweeter and denser–hails from Montreal, and a true rivalry exists between serious bagel die-hards.

No discussion of the Jewish bagel can be complete without mentioning cream cheese and lox. Like the bagel, lox, which is a brined salmon filet, is an import of Eastern European Jews. “Cream cheese,” however is more American–it was created in New York in 1872, but was named Philadelphia Cream Cheese a few years later as Philadelphia was known as a “foodie” town at the time.

Copyright © 2010 National Jewish Outreach Program. All rights reserved.

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