Bagel Anyone? The Story behind the Story

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Re: Bagel Anyone?, you might have been wondering about the title. To bagel. As in, to indicate yiddle mcfiddleness to one you suspect of same. Like when you turn to a stranger and mumble something about the chazzerai they’re serving at the diner you’re in, or conspicuously flash that chai pendant you usually hide beneath your collar. You make a comment about the real reason that Baby couldn’t date Johnny (hint: it’s not because he was a dance teacher) or the implicit ending of Keeping the Faith (spoiler: she’s converting). You switch from calling your baby “sweetie pie” to “bubbelah.” Loudly. Just as my gas station attendant turned to the guy who pulled up behind me the other day and slapped him on the back, calling him “compadre,” without knowing the man’s name or story, we too can often intuit a fellow neshama. Or so we might think. I can’t take credit for the term “to bagel.” Somewhere, in the fashion world, oddly enough, a style mountie knows the origin. Let’s hope he sees this post and gives credit where it is due.

For the record, I also can’t take credit for being Sarah. Or Pam. Or Leah. They’re purely fictitious. Characters who allow me to, in Tim O’Brien’s words, create story-truth when happening-truth doesn’t cut it.

But if you wanted to know the happening-truth that inspired my tale of bageling, here’s what really happened in the library:

I had been in this town for all of two weeks. Christmas wreaths seemed to grace every door. Many were stately, impressive, imposing. Despite being back in the New York area, I was feeling as Jewish as I had in Western Canada, where I taught The Merchant of Venice one semester and made the mistake of asking the class, before we began to look at the text, what the word “Jew” meant. Let’s just say it wasn’t pretty, my friends. And to make things worse, I thought I would help them re-think their responses by outing myself as a Jew, but I think all I managed to help them do was apply the series of epithets they had offered a moment earlier to their teacher. Their teacher, the Jew. Just like Shylock.

So maybe I wasn’t feeling quite that Jewish, but I was aware of the mezzuzzah in lieu of a wreath at the entrance to my home and the fact that I was sending my kids across the state when a very good public school was across the street.

I’m in the library, in the little cafe there, sitting beside two older, patrician women. One wears her soft gray hair pulled back in a chignon; the other looks as though she’s just left the salon. The first wears pearls, the second a silk scarf. They are discussing Trisha Brown, which is why I begin eavesdropping. I know nothing of modern dance (“dahnce,” I hear them say), but it happens that Chanda once dated this particular choreographer’s son. I never got to know him well, but I fell in love with his Soho loft, one of those vast spaces in a converted warehouse that his mom got, practically free, back in the 60s. He also drove a cool car.

I’m so immersed in their conversation–and my own recollections of that famous mother, the fabulous flat, and the pimped-out ride–that I don’t even notice what one of the women notices: Baby MoFo has slipped in his high chair and his head is tilted back precariously. “Watch his keppy!” she cries.

The town appears WASPy. But, claims the mother of one of my son’s two busmates from his far-off Jewish school, scratch the surface of these WASPs and you may be surprised to find a Jew lurking beneath.

Sarah Smith, Pam Brown, and the rest of you, there’s a special place in the local Presbyterian Church cemetery for you with a gravestone that, in death, as in life, can bagel. It won’t have a Star of David on it, but it will, like the handful of other gravestones in the cemetery unadorned by a cross, bear a flat top that will be laden with pebbles, picked up by your loved ones, and left there to commemorate you, as Jews have always commemorated their dead.

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4 responses »

  1. Reminds me of my dear Grandparents (alehem l’shalom) who used to travel/cruise regularly. Their trick was to ask (please pardon my yiddish, I could have it wrong) “Are you ‘frum ensuran?'”

    If the response was “from where?”, they moved on. Apparently that yiddish phrase means something along the lines of “are you one of us?”.

    If the response was different, the parties shared stories of their “einnekels”.

    Nice blogging, Princess.

  2. Also reminds me of a time when I was interviewing for a job in a city with a sparse Heeb population — but the department chair was one of us. A group of us was invited to dinner at his house. My “tell” was reaching up and tapping the mezuzah on my way in (first time in 25 years). I don’t know about the job, but I was the only applicant at dinner that night that he introduced to his beautiful single daughter…

    • Ah, an appropriate “tell” in the post-Yiddish universe we inhabit (all we have is a few yiddishisms–I pretty much know my body parts and the body parts of a chicken. Fleigeleh, anyone? Polky? gorgel?). Did you date the daughter–presumably a nice Jewish girl? Or were you saving yourself for the nice Jewish girl that is now the mother of your children (and a great baker, you lucky man!)? In either case, you are a good “einekel”–I’m sure your grandparents schepped much nachas from their good-looking doctor-grandson!

  3. Pingback: After the Quota System | The Poor Princess Diaries

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