I didn’t really grow up what you would call religious, but we always had a family tradition of eating bagels with lox and cream cheese on Sundays. Even now, there is a synagogue that I pass from time to time that advertises Sunday morning classes with a “lox and bagels bonus.” What’s with Jews and lox and bagels and Sundays?
Also, people sometimes use the term “lox-and-bagel Jew,” and I couldn’t figure out whether that was a positive or negative term.
Can you help shed some light on all of this? Thanks!
I always thought that lox and bagels on Sunday mornings is as “Jewish” as apple pie is “American”—except for crabapples, apples aren’t native to the United States, and neither does smoked salmon on bagels appear to be authentically Jewish. However, since we’re in the Jewish month of Adar, a month under the constellation of the fish, I decided to dig deeper and find the Jewish source for this sandwich.
A Bit About Bagels
Legends and theories surrounding the origins of the bagel abound, I but will mention just one. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was quite common for Jews to be banned by law from commercial baking. This stemmed from the belief that since Jews were enemies of the Church, they should be denied bread, which has a central role in Christian religious belief and practice.
In 1264, the Polish prince Boleslaw the Pious issued a decree that “Jews may freely buy and sell and touch bread like Christians.” As a reaction to this, in 1267, a group of Polish bishops forbade Christians to buy any foodstuffs from Jews, darkly hinting that they contained poison for the unsuspecting gentile. At some point, the theory goes, Jews were allowed to work with bread that was boiled, and they created the bagel to comply with his ruling.
The earliest documented mention of the Yiddish word “bagel” is in 1610, in regulations issued by the Jewish council of Kraków, which stated that bagels were given as a gift to women in childbirth.
In any event, the bagel gained popularity among Eastern European Jews, and by the time they emigrated en masse to the United States at the turn of the 20th century, the bagel rolled right along with them.
A Little About Lox
The Jewish affinity for salted or smoked fish is based on a number of factors.
First, fish is considered pareve, and can be eaten in a dairy or meat meal. (Note: While fish and meat may be eaten in the same meal, they cannot be eaten together. For more on that, see Fish with Meat or Dairy.)
Second, unlike meat, which has many requirements for slaughtering and preparing it in a kosher fashion, you can buy a whole kosher fish from a non-Jewish store.
Third, smoking or salting the fish minimized the need for refrigeration.
Before there was lox, there was herring. It was only once the Jews emigrated to the U.S., and salmon was relatively cheaper and easier to come by than herring, that lox became a favorite. So, despite the fact that the word “lox” comes from the Yiddish “laks” (“lachs” in German), as far as I know there is no known special Jewish connection to it prior to the early 1900s in the United States.
The Cream Cheese Connection
Gil Marks, a specialist in Jewish culinary history, explains that the very unkosher American classic brunch food Eggs Benedict (two halves of an English muffin topped with ham or bacon, a poached egg and hollandaise sauce) became popular in New York City in the 1930s. Of course, kosher-keeping Jewish people couldn’t eat it. So they substituted lox slices for the ham, cream cheese for the hollandaise sauce, and bagels for the muffins. Thus, the Jews created a new Jewish-American classic, bagels with cream cheese and lox.
The “Lox-and-Bagel Jew”
Although many view the term as referring to one who has no connection to Judaism other than eating bagels with lox on Sunday, I think this term also has a positive connotation, for it highlights the fact that even assimilated Jews retain a connection to their Jewishness. It may just be a cultural connection to them, but it stems from their forebears’ efforts to keep the kosher dietary laws in a new land.
The Inner Meaning
The bagel has even played a part in revealing the purpose of creation.
There is a well-known chassidic story that Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the Alter Rebbe) was once learning with Rabbi Avraham “the Angel” (son of the Maggid of Mezeritch). While learning, Rabbi Avraham reached such a deep state of soulful longing for G‑dliness that his soul was about to leave him. Thinking quickly, Rabbi Schneur Zalman forced his friend to eat a piece of bagel with butter to bring him down to reality, and “the Angel’s” life was saved.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, remarked that in recording and transmitting this story, chassidic tradition included the “trivial” detail that the lifesaving food was a bagel with butter, but neglected to even tell what lofty subject prompted “the Angel” to almost leave his body.
The Rebbe went on to explain that the bagel had to be eaten because “the Angel” had to live—as a soul in a body—in order to fulfill his purpose: revealing G‑dliness in this physical world through learning Torah and performing mitzvahs. On the other hand, the topic that they were learning together would have caused his soul to leave this world, which would have detracted from his purpose. Thus, the crucial aspect of the story is the bagel with butter, which helped him continue to fulfill his purpose in this world.
So the next time you savor the taste of a bagel, no matter the topping, remember that our purpose in this physical world can be revealed even in a humble bagel.