Why Do Jews Eat Lox and Bagels?
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,1 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.2
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” (“lochs” 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 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
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