This time of year can be challenging for Jews. The joy of Chanukah has subsided, and we find ourselves adrift in a 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 multicolored 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? By bageling.
It all started when my friend Doodie Miller — who wears a kippah — was in college and suffering through a tedious lecture. As the professor droned on, a 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 — she didn’t wear any identifying signs such as 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 that would henceforth be known as the Bagel Theory.
The Bagel Theory is 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 — 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.
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 an evening at a funky coffeehouse with friends. We engaged in a few boisterous rounds of Boggle, the game in which you must quickly make words out of jumbled lettered cubes. A couple college students who were observing our fun 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 nonreligious couple marveled at traveling kosher and declared they would do so in the future. A satisfying bagel to be sure.
In the years since, our bagel encounters have become precious souvenirs, Yiddishekeit knick-knacks from our family adventures in smaller Jewish communities. Like the time the boy at the Coffee Bean in Pasadena, walked up to my husband, pulled out a mezuzah from around his neck, smiled and ran away (a nonverbal bagel!). Or our day trip to the pier in San Clemente, where an impish girl in cornrows and bikini scampered over to say “Good Shabbos.”
We have been bageled waiting at air- line ticket counters, in elevators, at the supermarket checkout. I myself
have been known to bagel when the situation calls for it, like the time I asked the Chassid on an airplane if I could borrow a siddur.
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 that stood in unison at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. Now scattered across the Earth, as we encounter one another’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.
Jessica Levine Kupferberg lives in La Jolla. This column appears courtesy of Aish.com.