A few weeks ago, a friend told me about meeting a baby who was using a bagel for a teething ring. Upon further investigation, it turned out to be a special bagel, a teething bagel, made by New York Bagel in Detroit.
This set off a long-buried memory in my brain of reading about how bagels were invented to feed teething babies and how I once reported this fact to a coworker, who accused me of being sarcastic. But I was being sincere! I was reporting what I thought was a known fact! But was it?
I called up New York Bagel and spoke to Phil Goldsmith, the third-generation owner. “We’ve been making teething bagels for a long time,” he told me. “I teethed on a teething bagel. My brother and sister did, my cousins, my cousins’ kids.” But why did the Goldsmiths start making teething bagels? Was it an Old Country tradition?
“Let me ask my dad,” Goldsmith told me. “He might know.” His dad happened to be right there at the bagel shop, so it wasn’t a long wait. “My dad is not familiar with the origin,” he reported. “But it goes back a long, long way. It’s always been part of the business. And I don’t know that anyone else does it.”
That would seem to settle the matter. But that memory still nagged at me. (And also Goldsmith’s revelation that New York Bagel sells dog bagels, called, naturally, Dogels, on Amazon. Of course I had to buy some for my own dog because I am a sucker like that.)
Almost all bagel discourse on the internet goes back to two sources: The Joys of Yiddish, an old chestnut by Leo Rosten that is a standard in the homes of many American Jews who feel nostalgic for the days when they misunderstood their grandparents; and The Bagel: The Surprising History of a Modest Bread, a serious and entertaining work of carbohydrate scholarship by Maria Balinska from 2008.
According to Rosten, the word “bagel” comes from from the German beugel, a round loaf of bread. According to another Yiddishist, Gerald Stillman, “it comes from the Yiddish word for ‘to bend,’ which is beygn if you’re a Litvak and baygen if you’re a Galitsyaner [that is, from Lithuania or from Poland and Ukraine].” Balinska supports Stillman’s interpretation, though she spells it beigen, and adds that it comes from the Middle High German bouc, which also means “to bend.” (This is all proof that even when Jews agree, in theory, they still feel compelled to disagree. Remember this.)
Okay, great. But why did Jews feel compelled to make round, boiled loaves of bread with holes in the middle? There are two folktales to explain this:
The first is that it was a gesture of gratitude to the Polish king Jan Sobieski, who was, as the saying goes, good for the Jews. Sobieski, known as the great hero of the Battle of Vienna in 1683, which ended the Ottoman Empire’s advancement into Europe, was, according to this legend, raised in a Jewish household and was either taught the Talmud by his adoptive father or blessed by a rabbi who saw a halo (or maybe a bagel???) shining over his head. Both of these things are likely untrue, Balinska writes, but Sobieski was not as terrible to his Jewish subjects as some of his predecessors had been. He paid restitution to the Jews in Krakow whose shops and homes had been destroyed in an anti-Jewish riot and, more significantly for our story, lifted a 200-year-old regulation that prohibited the Jews of Krakow from baking white bread. In return, the grateful Jewish bakers of Krakow created a new form of bread in the shape of the stirrup Sobieski used during his heroic cavalry charge in Vienna.
The second story relates to the prohibition against Jews baking white bread. There was no prohibition, however, against Jews boiling white bread. A related story told to Joan Nathan by the surviving members of Krakow’s most prominent bagel-making family—whose surname was, yes!, Beigel—says that back in the 18th and 19th centuries, Jewish merchants wanted to stay kosher while traveling through the Polish countryside, so they brought their own food with them. Part of keeping kosher was washing one’s hands before eating bread. However, the merchants were worried about typhoid. But if dough was boiled, it technically became a noodle, not bread, and so hand-washing was no longer necessary. (This story appears in Nathan’s book King Solomon’s Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.) In my notes, I wrote, “This is the most ridiculous Jewish law story I have ever heard, so I’m going to accept it as truth.”
For the record, Balinska thinks that bagels probably evolved over time, descended from a round Polish roll called an obwarzanek, which, in turn, may have been inspired by an Italian roll called a ciambella. The ciambella at least has a connection to babies: a picture by the Florentine painter Lorenzo Lippi of Mary and Baby Jesus shows the holy infant grasping one in his little fist. Maybe Lippi’s model later gnawed on the ciambella? But while teething may have been a function of all these breads, it was not the intended purpose.
However! According to Rosten, the Community Regulations of Krakow in 1610 specified that bagels were a gift to women in childbirth. (Note that this happened more than 70 years before the Battle of Vienna, rendering the Jan Sobieski stirrup story bunk.) He provides no citation for this besides a quote from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes about the circle of life. We’re just supposed to accept it as fact because Leo Rosten said so. And, it must be admitted, lots of people did.
But not Balinska. She looked into these regulations, which basically governed everything the Jewish community as a whole and its individual members was permitted to do. One thing they were not allowed to do was indulge in ostentatious displays of wealth so that neighboring gentiles wouldn’t get envious and go on a rampage and so poor Jews wouldn’t feel compelled to live beyond their means. In those days, bagels constituted an ostentatious display of wealth because they were made with white flour. Wheat was still a rarity in Poland, and most people ate rye.
“Specifically,” Balinska writes, “the bagel regulation in question pertains to the celebrations to mark the circumcision of a baby boy. In great detail the document prescribes who may ‘send for’ bagels, cakes and challah, and who may receive them.” Despite the detail, scholars still argued about what it actually meant. (Remember the thing about how Jews disagree even when they agree?) From there, Rosten, as Balinska puts it, “makes a further interpretive leap” to claim that bagels were associated with childbirth. Which, okay, technically true, since circumcision is associated with childbirth.
But these bagels were not for babies! Bagels were for people who could actually appreciate them!
As time went on, though, Poland began growing more wheat and white flour became less rare. By the 19th century, Polish Jews and gentiles alike cherished the bagel, much as their American counterparts do now. And, writes Balinska, bagels “provided a host of attractions for children.” They wore them like bracelets, rolled them like hoops, fought over them in tug-of-war, and sang about them in nursery rhymes.
By then also, Jewish women had become the primary bakers of bagels. Many of these women had children. Is it possible that a baker would give a teething baby a stale bagel to chew on so it would stop screaming and she could get back to work? Balinska doesn’t say. This is not the sort of thing that makes it into the historical record (like poor and illiterate people everywhere, these women were too busy making a living to record the intimate details of their lives, and no one else cared enough to do it for them).
But who’s to say it didn’t happen that way, both back in Poland and then in Detroit when the little teething Goldsmiths raged so much that only a stale bagel could soothe them? As some rabbi probably intoned, just as a bagel represents infinity, so are its uses infinite. And if he didn’t say it, he should have.