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The Bagel Theory

The Bagel Theory

Jews have a powerful need to connect with one another.


This time of year can be challenging for Jews. After the joy of Chanukah subsides, we find ourselves adrift in the Red and Green sea. Our halls are markedly undecked while most of the world is encrusted in boughs of holly. The glare of tinsel and little multi-colored lights blind us at every turn. We dread the awkward pause after someone wishes us something merry and know the discomfort of holiday parties for a holiday that we don't celebrate.

What can be done to combat the isolation? How can we satisfy a hunger for Jewish connection?

'Tis the season to go forth and .... bagel.

The Beginning of Bageling

It all started when my friend Doodie Miller-- who wears a kippah – was back in college and suffering through a tedious lecture. As the professor droned on, a previously-unknown young woman leaned over and whispered in his ear:

"This class is as boring as my Zayde's seder."

You see, the woman knew that she did not "look" Jewish, nor did she wear any identifying signs like a Star of David. So foregoing the awkward declaration, "I'm Jewish," the girl devised a more nuanced – and frankly, cuter – way of heralding her heritage.

This incident launched a hypothesis which would henceforth be known as the Bagel Theory.

Jews, regardless of observance or affiliation, have a powerful need to connect with one another.

The Bagel Theory stands for the principle that we Jews, regardless of how observant or affiliated we are, have a powerful need to connect with one another. To that end, we find ways to "bagel" each other – basically, to "out" ourselves to fellow Jews.

There are two ways to bagel. The brave or simply unimaginative will tell you straight out that they are Jewish (a plain bagel). But the more creative will concoct subtler and even sublime ways to let you know that they, too, are in the know. (These bagels are often the best; like their doughy counterparts, cultural bagels are more flavorful when there is more to chew on.)

Bageled at Boggle

I suspect that Jews have been bageling even before real bagels were invented. And while my husband and I may not have invented bageling, we do seem to have a steady diet of bagel encounters.

An early bagel favorite occurred when my kippah-wearing husband and I were dating, and we spent a Saturday evening at a funky coffee house with friends. We engaged in a few boisterous rounds of Boggle, the game where you must quickly make words out of jumbled lettered cubes. Observing our fun, a couple of college students at a nearby table asked if they could play too. After we rattled the tray and furiously scribbled our words, it was time to read our lists aloud. One of the students, who sported a rasta hat and goatee, proudly listed the word "yad." Unsuspecting, we inquired, "What's a yad?" He said with a smirk, "You know, that pointer you read the Torah with." Yes, we were bageled at Boggle.

On our honeymoon in Rome, we were standing at the top of the Spanish steps next to a middle-aged couple holding a map. The husband piped up in an obvious voice, "I wonder where the synagogue is." My husband and I exchanged a knowing look at this classic Roman bagel and proceeded to strike up a conversation with this lovely couple from Chicago. After we took them to the synagogue, they asked to join us at the kosher pizza shop. As we savored the cheeseless arugula and shaved beef pizza – to this day the best pizza I have ever had – this non-religious couple marveled at traveling kosher and declared they would do so in the future. A satisfying bagel to be sure.

Holy Bagel

In the years since, our bagel encounters have become precious souvenirs, yiddishe knick-knacks from our family adventures in smaller Jewish communities. Like the time the little boy at the Coffee Bean in Pasadena, California, walked up to my husband, pulled out a mezuzah from around his neck, smiled and ran away. (A non-verbal bagel!) Or our day trip to the pier in San Clemente, California when an impish girl in cornrows and bikini scampered over to say "Good Shabbos."

We have been bageled waiting at airline ticket counters, in elevators, at the supermarket checkout. And I myself have been known to bagel when the situation calls for it, like the time I asked the chassid seated a few rows up on an airplane if I could borrow a siddur.

On a recent trip abroad, however, we did not get bageled even once. That was in Israel where, thankfully, there is just no need.

We bagel in a quest to feel whole.

Ultimately, why do we feel this need to bagel? Does it stem from our shared patriarchs, our pedigree of discrimination and isolation, a common love of latkes or just the human predisposition to be cliquey? I maintain it is something more. Our sages say that all Jews were originally one interconnected soul which stood in unison at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Now scattered across the Earth, as we encounter each other's Jewish souls, we recognize and reconnect with a piece of our divine selves. The bagel may have a hole, but we bagel in a quest to feel whole.

So the next time a sweaty stranger at the gym says to you, "I haven't been this thirsty since Yom Kippur," smile. You've just been bageled – adding another link in the Jewish circle of connection.

Share your own bagel story in the comments section below.

December 8, 2007

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Visitor Comments: 121

(121) Anonymous, September 2, 2014 2:18 PM


Well many moons ago when I was single and lived in Manchester, England before coming to Israel. Living in what we thought to be a tight knitted community, there at the time I had Uncles and Aunts and cousins galore.

Sometimes on a Sunday morning I would visit a cousin of mine whose children were small at the time. Today those children are now married with their own children, some here in Israel and some still there.

We drank coffee, and I and sat at the table eating the odd bagel with smoked salmon etc. I never gave this much thought at the time as we lived in an open to all home. Friends and relatives visited at all hours late in the evenings and we'd sit there around the enjoying a beef sandwich or whatever.

It was one Shabbat morning that these small children were up in the Ladies Gallery of my parents shool with their Grandma as they called her on the front row up there.

For some reason I had wandered out of the shool area and returned. I never heard them but did hear one or two people laughing and never knew why?

Later through my mother I heard that when I had come in, the little boy or girl she or he may have been around 6 or 7 at the time had shouted out "there's moishe the bagel fresser. All the Ladies Gallery within earshot including my late Mother and Aunt burst out laughing.

(120) Anonymous, October 21, 2013 5:59 PM

so useful in kiruv

I have used this concept many times in the Divine Providence which comes up here and there....G-d wants me to meet these great Jews who are looking for more Torah connections, and now I tell them "you bageled me" and I explain what they did, and why. This is really important. Once, a woman bageled me and she later told me that she so badly wanted to know more about real active jewish life, which she was able to do, once she "bageled" me. This term is a pure revealing of this phenomenon of a Jew in Golus, and we need to know about it.

(119) Anonymous, December 28, 2012 9:14 PM

Stamped Jew

A few years back- being a proud but non-traditional Jew . Actually , I am a practicing Budhist . I Tattood Rabbi Meir Kahan's insignia from his book 'Never Again' ; the fist that lays within the Magen David - surrounded by the words NEVER AGAIN- and the word JUDE placed within the fist- since my grandfather lost 12 brothers & sisters & his parents in the camps....this is how I show my bageling - as not a day goes by when I walk through the streets of LA & religious to secular alike comment in positive reaction- or when I travel.. Or when a gentile askes what it means- I love telling the tale of my grandfather n what he went through and who Kahana was...& what never again means- I especially love being branded a Jew - amongst my other tats- that's the most prevelant. I am a walking bagel

(118) CR, December 25, 2010 7:47 PM

I get bageled frequently

As an obviously religious woman, I often get bageled. Two bagel stories stand out in my mind: Years ago, as a single girl shopping in Manhattan during lunch hour, I spotted a nice blouse and asked the salesman if the same shirt was available with long sleeves. He immediate began jabbering to me in Hebrew, said he wants to marry me and promised that he would become religious. He was obviously one very lonely Jew in the Big Apple trying to connect to another. This next story happened 11 years ago when I was traveling alone from NY to Israel. The flight was delayed and we were given vouchers redeemable at the local airport (non-kosher) cafeteria. I bought a couple of pieces of fresh fruit plus a bag of potato chips that carried a familiar kosher symbol, found an empty table and took a seat. An Israeli young man and his mother saw me there and chose to join me. A long conversation ensued, including lots of questions about media stereotypes of religious people. They both showed great interest which led to questions about whether his non-Jewish girlfriend could convert. I explained at length what conversion was about and that it included full intention of practicing Judaism. I pointed out that it is possible to fool a Beit Din (Jewish court of law) but the one person no one can fool is oneself. We ran out of time (he wanted to hear more!) and I suggested that when he reached Israel, he should contact Rabbi Mordechai Neugroschel, Director of the "Judaism from a Different Angle" Center. I fumbled in my bag for a pen and paper and he immediately pulled a pen out of his pocket and gave it to me. I wonder if anything came of that bageling experience. I guess I will only find out in Olam Habah. I have had many more, and it seems clear that Jews not only want to connect with other Jews, but also want to connect with their heritage.

(117) Daniel Sunshine, December 24, 2010 2:38 PM

A Rabbi of mine used to refer to a similar idea; he called it the 'Cosmic Bagel'. The idea that the bagel represents the finite world and the hole is that part we are attempting to fill in or connect with i.e the holy.

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