‘The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story’ – Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman Team Up for a New Documentary Film
Silver was turned onto this story by noted food writer Matthew Goodman, author of the book Jewish Food: The World at Table and the former Food Maven columnist for The Forward. Co-producers on the project, Silver will direct Goodman’s script.
The bagel film project arose from a meeting Silver arranged with Goodman for his insights into the food of the Catskills, the famous East Coast Jewish resort that is the subject of a second documentary Silver is prepping. In the course of their Catskills conversation he mentioned his findings on the bagel and suggested it might make an interesting film.
According to Goodman, long an admirer of Silver’s films, she said, “’Would you like to work together on it?’ Of course, I was delighted. I think she has a wonderful literary sensibility when it comes to her work.”
As research by these first-time collaborators reveals, the rise of the bagel has strong reverberations with the greater immigrant story in America and the assimilation and discrimination that is part of it. “It came from Poland, it struggled and strained and went through everything most other immigrants do before it prospered,” Silver said. “That caught my imagination so totally when we figured that out that we decided, Okay, let’s do this.”
Immigrant tales have long fascinated Silver, whose parents, the late Maurice and Doris Micklin, came here in the wake of the Russian revolution. Hester Street explores turn of the century life for newly arrived Jews on the Lower East Side and their struggles to blend in. Crossing Delancey eyes contemporary Jewish life in Manhattan and the conflict of traditional versus modern values.
The now ubiquitous bagel was brought here by Eastern European Jews, among whose members were artisan bakers steeped in the closely guarded tradition of Old World–read: handmade–bagel baking techniques.
“This was artisanal baking. These guys were the holders of the keys of the kingdom, as it were, when it came to bagels. This was the knowledge of the correct way to bake a bagel that had been passed down from generation to generation, going all the way back. The way to do it was a pretty tightly held secret,” Goodman said.
“They took great pride in their ability. It was not easy to do. The ovens were not easy to work. The dough unwieldy. It took a long time. You had to apprentice awhile before you became a member. So these guys really were craftsmen,” he said.
Unfortunately one of the things lost over time is that sense of artisanship, he added. “They were masters at making bagels. There was an art to it,” Silver said. “They were artists and they really cared about the quality of the product.”
Old-style bagels, much smaller than the modern variety, were distinctive for their hard crusts, chewy interiors and savory flavor. The International Bagel Bakers Union Local 338 formed to protect the recipes, methods and interests of the master bagel bakers. Only sons or nephews of current members could join. Every bagel in New York City came out of a union shop.
With the advent of bagel-making machines that churned out bagels faster than any hands could, the oldways became obsolete and the bagel assimilated into the cultural melting pot, turning blander and fatter in the process.
“Part of the story we’re telling in this film is that the demise of the union really led to the demise of the bagel as well,” Goodman said. “The machine just couldn’t make as good a bagel as the men could, for a number of reasons. One reason being the traditional bagel dough was too stiff to go through the bagel machine. It kept breaking down the machines. So bakery owners started adding water to the dough so it would go through the machines better, but that ended up making the bagel softer. And bagels since that time have gone through all sorts of changes with the addition of dough conditioners, which most bakeries use now, to relax the gluten in the dough immediately so bagels don’t have to sit overnight. It’s a big money saver for the bakery owners, but it reduces the flavor of the bagel significantly.
“A lot of places don’t even boil their bagels anymore before baking them, which is the hallmark of the bagel — boiled before baked. They just sort of steam them because they don’t want that hard crust. They think people don’t want to chew that hard.”
Goodman said the bagel’s transformation from hand-crafted, ethnic food stuff to homogenized, mass-produced staple reflects “the American public’s taste. The American public likes big, soft, bland, white baked goods. But that’s part of the story, too — that as the bagel became less Jewish and more mainstream American it had to take on more of mainstream America’s tastes.” A similar thing happened with pizza and many other ethnic foods whose authentic characteristics were diluted or distorted on the path to Americanization.
The story of the bagel in America is also the story of the IBBU Local 338. Bagel bakers fought hard to improve the arduous conditions they worked in, using their union as leverage in negotiations with employers.
“The conditions were terrible. The heat of the bakery while they were baking got to be like 110 degrees. Bakers often slept on benches in the bakery. They went through a lot. After a great deal of effort, they built a strong union. It was a terrific thing,” said Silver, who is doing much of her studies at the famed Yivo Institute of Jewish Research in New York, where former Omaha resident Leo Greenbaum is associate archivist-acquisitions archivist.
Goodman “discovered” the IBBU while doing research for an essay on the history of the bagel published in the Harvard Review. He’d never heard of the union.
“I just thought it was a fantastic thing, you know, a union composed entirely of bagel bakers,” he said. “And the more I looked into it the more fascinated I became by the story of a union that for several decades controlled all of the bagel bakeries in New York City and then within a span of less than a decade had been wiped out. I thought this was a really poignant story. It’s a little-known story. And also a story that allowed the telling of a larger story about the way ethnic foods assimilate in the larger society and also the demise of the labor movement.”
The IBBU, whose exclusive ranks never exceeded 300-some members at any one time, reached beyond New York, although that’s where it was centered.
“My sense of it is if you were a bagel baker anywhere in the country you were a member…It happened that the vast majority of bagel bakers were in New York, but I believe there were members in places like Chicago and Boston,” Goodman said.
Long before bagel machines replaced them and broke their union, Local 338 brethren faced challenges from bakery owners, who, Goodman said, used “strikebreakers and scabs” to try and crush their solidarity. Resistance to the union included the emergence of “non-union shops,” said Goodman, “many heavily subsidized by organized crime. So, there was certainly a lot to deal with.”
By the mid ’70s the union was no more.
“The older guys retired. Some ended up working in non-union shops, working in much poorer conditions than they had been working in previously. Some joined the general bakers union and went to work in other union shops, not necessarily baking bagels. A lot of the guys left New York and took off around the country to open their own bagel shops. That’s how bagels really got introduced to different parts of the country that had never known bagels before. That’s the first time places like Albuquerque or Sacramento had seen fresh baked bagels,” he said.
Goodman and Silver say a fair number of IBBU bakers are still around, but no one’s quite sure exactly how many. The filmmakers’ plans call for on-camera interviews with many of these men, some quite aged now. There’s a sense of urgency to record and preserve the bakers’ stories before the legacy of their craftsmanship and union is irretrievably lost. For his Harvard Review essay on the bagel Goodman interviewed some of the men, tapping memories of long ago.
Memories of favorite foods, especially aromas, are known to be among the strongest our brains store. As the bagel is a food bound up in ritual, whether along family ethnic lines or urban lifestyle lines or breakfast staple lines, it is a food that serves as a nostalgic “touchstone,” Silver said.
“People think about it and it’s sort of like Proust’s (Marcel) madeleines. It has kind of ringing memories for people.” Her own remembrances of things past take her back to when she was a little girl and her father brought her to a downtown Omaha bakery for “the best rye bread you can imagine and wonderful bagels.” Goodman too recalls the traditional bagels of his childhood.
The filmmakers are counting on the public’s bagel nostalgia, including memorabilia, to help illustrate their story. In a letter recently emailed to Jewish newspapers nationwide, the filmmakers made an appeal: “As part of our research for the film, we are interested in obtaining all manner of visual material concerning the history of bagels in America: old photographs of bagel shops or bagel bakers, home movies that include bagels, newspaper or magazine advertisements for bagels, etc.”
Readers with materials are asked to respond to firstname.lastname@example.org. The filmmakers’ letter ends with, “We would be very grateful for any assistance you might provide. We look forward to hearing from you.”
The pair hope to start production in late fall. They must first secure funding.
In a new immigrant twist on the bagel’s evolution in America, the filmmakers say the rare bagel made today in the traditional manner is usually crafted by…Thais. Oy vey!
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