Sunday, August 24, 2008

What Happenned to the Real Bagels

A long awaited dispatch from a man who has been published far and wide:
Bagels are in my blood, and I mean that as literally as scientifically possible.

My father and his brother opened the first bagel deli in Seattle back in 1978, 5 years before I was born. They brought with them the Detroit recipe and made them properly (boiling the formed dough before baking). Bagels were tokhik in our family, and still very much are. But my snobbery for real bagels (if they’re not boiled, their rolls or muffins, even if they are shaped like donuts) has made life difficult because bagels are increasingly rare. Most sellers of purported “bagels” simply parade rolls (savory flavors) and muffins (sweet flavors). My father, were he dead, would be rolling in his grave. But roll he does, in life (thankfully), like I do, over people’s, and Jews’ in particular, acceptance of these impostors as legitimate products.

This issue speaks to a more broad issue: the growing indifference of Jews in American to being Jewish. American Jews have the luxury of being Jewish without fear for their livelihoods, but many do not take advantage of this privilege.

The bagel is an American Jewish invention. So too is Reform Judaism (credit can be shared with Europe, though the movement is stronger in state-side). And like the bagel, (and lox – what’s with this Nova rubbish?) the Reform movement is having its problems keeping itself significant. In January of this year, the chair of the board of trustees of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), Peter Weidhorn, warned the most pressing challenge for congregations is “attracting and retaining members,” specifically pointing out troubles of retaining family memberships after their children’s bar or bat mitzvah.

However, being religious is only an electable part of what it means to be Jewish. There is much more to Jewish identity than religion. There’s the heritage of the Jewish people: our shared history of cyclical struggle and victory in our pursuit of life. There’s the long list of traditions. There’s Jewish values, like tikkun olam, which drives the Jewish civic mind. There’s Israel, and the politics surrounding it. And for many American Jews, these pieces of Jewish identity are becoming foreign concepts.

Take the Israel connection as an example. Many of us have been on Birthright, and most of us have enjoyed our trip. And potentially (hopefully), you developed a stronger connection to our ancestral homeland. But how do you feel now, a year or more after your trip? The Jewish community has done a fantastic job bringing Diaspora Jews to Israel, but there are few organized post-Birthright programs, and they are not popular among Birthright alumni. We’ve all been told that what Israel needs most from American Jews is aliyah, yet America legs behind immigrants from the former Soviet bloc, Ethiopia, and France.

Most events in St. Louis for Jews in their 20s and 30s are well attended; I see this when I go. But as the events get less socially-focused and more issue-focused, attendance decreases. YPD and SLIC’s Yom Haatzmaut had a great turnout, but Java Talk, which aims to foster a better understanding of Israel through dialogue on Sunday afternoons, receives only a fraction of the 60th celebration crowd. Events like Jewish art shows are frequented almost exclusively by the over 50 crowd. I doubt most St Louis Jews in their 20s and 30s could explain the significance of “Shalom Salaam” or even tell the difference between a real bagel and an impostor.

I’m disturbed by the practical and philosophical implications of the loss of the bagel because there is so much good in our heritage and so much potential in our future that hangs in the balance. Not everyone has to volunteer for a political campaign and go to temple every week, but it is important that they vote, that they learn about Judaism, and that they explore their own connection, because guarantee with all have one.

1 comment:

Leslie said...

Actually bagels were made in the shtetls of Europe, but they looked quite different from the steroidal bagels we now see in America...imposterer or not. Maybe bagels are really a barometer for the economic status of Jews...just kidding. =)