Doughs and Don'ts: The Jewish Roots of the Bagel

The bagel has been identified with the Jewish community as far back as the 12th century. A small family bakery in northern Israel still gives the bread the respect it deserves.

Dan Peretz

The eye is immediately drawn to the huge stone oven, surrounded by brown bricks to insulate the searing heat roaring inside it most hours of the day. The heat source – blue-red gas flames (firewood in days gone by) – is situated on the left side. And to balance out the heat within the space, the late oven craftsman Marko David created a slight incline in the angle of the stone floor. His grandson, Asher – the third generation of this family of bakers from Eastern European descent – knows the oven his grandfather built like the back of his hand (“There are six different temperature spots inside the oven and I move the bagels from place to place, as required”).

How mesmerizing to watch the bagel maker ply his ancient craft, which at the family bakery in Kiryat Ata is still done by the traditional, manual method: The master roller – the star of the bagel bakers in days of yore – twists off a piece of dough from an enormous, hard lump made from gluten-rich flour, which is quite resistant to his kneading. With both hands, he quickly rolls the piece of dough into an elongated cylinder and then, with an agile sleight of hand, with just one hand wraps a ring of dough around four of his fingers and pats the ends together to create a perfect circle.

This acrobatic feat, lasting but a few seconds, repeats over and over (“It looks like an outdated system,” says Asher, leaning over the wooden table, “but we can make 400-600 bagels an hour this way”).

The perfect rounds of dough – the skilled hands having formed them all of nearly equal size and shape – are dipped in a bubbling bath of boiling caramel water for a few minutes, before disappearing into the mouth of the furnace. As soon as the upper side is dry, the bagel maker uses a long bamboo paddle to shift them from one hot spot to another, until they are perfectly and evenly baked on all sides.

Dan Peretz

The gluten-rich dough is what gives the bagel its special texture; the moisture that comes from the initial boiling gives it that hard crust (not the industrial shortcut of using caustic soda), and the brown color comes from the burnt caramel in the cooking water. The warm, fresh result, speckled with sesame seeds and salt crystals, and spread with butter, is enough to make any sane person go crazy with desire.

Dan Peretz

Horse and buggy

“Marko’s Bagels – since 1932” says the sign over the Kiryat Ata bakery, although it first opened its doors in this northern city in 2005. The year 1932 was actually when Marko David first entered a bagel bakery, in the city of Iasi, eastern Romania; he was just eight years old. “My grandfather was born in 1924,” says Asher. “He was orphaned at age seven, after both his parents died when the town’s movie theater collapsed. At age eight he went to work in the local bakery.

“We don’t know much about what happened to him during the Holocaust,” adds Asher. “There are two types of Holocaust survivors – those who are a closed box, and those who talk. My grandfather belonged to the first category. He was 15 when the war broke out. From the little bits he occasionally told us, I know he escaped from the ghetto through the sewers, and that he also lived in the sewers for a long time. One time, he said that a gentile fellow who worked with him at the bakery informed on him to the Nazis, but that at the end of the war he settled the score with him.

“After the war, he met my grandmother. They got married, moved back to his hometown and had four children. The family made aliyah to Israel in 1962, and my grandfather opened his first bagel bakery in Be’er Sheva. He sold bagels there and also roamed the streets with a horse and buggy. Then the family moved to Ashkelon, and there they opened a bagel bakery that’s still there in the market. My aunt runs it now.

“I have another uncle who’s also in the bagel business, but in our [immediate] family it skipped a generation. My father was a mechanic and didn’t want to bake bagels. I worked for years marketing smoke detectors, but I always knew I’d come back to bagels. My grandfather, who worked until he was 85 and died just a couple of months ago, is the one who built the oven when my brother Asaf and I decided to open this bakery nine years ago.”

Marko David also built the traditional bagel ovens for other bakeries that have since closed, like the Hershko Bakery in Haifa and the bagel bakery on Pines Street in Neve Tzedek.

How the bagel converted

The years between the wars (1918-1939) were the time when the bagel – a baked good long associated with the Jewish community – became an everyday part of life in Eastern Europe. The first mention of the bagel in Jewish sources dates back to Krakow, 1610. At that time, the bagel – made of a wheat dough that was rare in those parts – was eaten mainly on holidays and other festive occasions. The expensive wheat flour, which cost four times as much as rye and other types of flour, and the bagel’s mystical shape – which was associated with the circle of life – made it something that, at first, was served mostly at celebrations of a baby’s birth, or at funeral meals.

The changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution – such as the steamships that brought wheat from the New World, and the new kinds of engines that propelled the grindstones of the flour mills – helped to make the bagel cheaper and more popular.

What made the bagel a “Jewish” food, if other communities in other places had similar baked goods? It’s hard to say, since it’s also hard to trace just where the first bagel was invented. In addition, the legends surrounding its symbolic shape are numerous – and sometimes outlandish.

The circular bread, which has parallels in other European cultures, likely migrated with the Jews who came to Poland from France and Germany in the 12th century. In their new homeland, where, unlike in Western Europe, Jews were not prohibited from entering professional guilds, the Jews were permitted to work in the baking trade, among others. Thus, the way was paved for the bagel to become associated with the Jewish community.

The story’s continuation in the modern era is better known. Waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe brought the bagel with them to the New World, where it became one of the foods most identified with the Jewish community, and in time an integral part of New York and American cuisine.

In Israel, the bagel has not quite become part of the local canon, and traditional bagel bakeries can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The David brothers say the times require them to add other items to their bakery menu (such as a marvelous pretzel, made from the same dough, but thinner and crispier). But the traditional round bagel, bread without a beginning or end and with a hole in the middle, is more than enough reason to make the pilgrimage to their shop just north of Haifa.

Habeygal’e Shel Saba Marko, 30 Ha’atzmaut Street, Kiryat Ata. (04) 845-0850