The huge ovens warm my back as I inhale a slice of soft chocolate babka, a sweet braided bread popular in Ashkenazi Jewish communities. The bread is perfectly tender and nutty, marbled with earthy chocolate dough. At eight years old, I am standing in the kitchens of the Grand Bakery, a kosher Jewish bakery in my hometown of Oakland, California on a field trip with my after-school synagogue group. Black and white cookies, sticky coconut macaroons, deep-fried jelly donuts, heat kissed challahs - and, of course, shiny bagels - make eye contact with us behind glass. With excitement skyrocketing, our group is offered a plate of freshly baked babka in the back. We descend on the tablelike locusts, reducing the plate to a dark chocolate smear with our buttery fingers. This day fit into my wider Jewish consciousness and fascination with food, which appeared to me everywhere in my Jewish education.
Early on, I was fascinated by the myth of pomegranates holding 613 seeds corresponding with the 613 commandments in the Torah. I once tried to see if this was true, but did not have the patience to count and ate a few seeds along the way.
Bread, specifically, seemed to star in every story. Matzoh was central to Passover; when the Israelites were fleeing Egypt they didn’t have time to let bread rise, so they let dough cook on their backs in the sun and created Matzoh, the cracker-like bread Jews eat each spring at Passover. On Purim we made hamentashen, triangle-shaped cookies filled with jam and poppy seeds that mocked the triangular hat of an anti-semitic tyrant named Haman. Dough was also present on Chanukah with fluffy sufganiyot, jelly doughnuts that celebrate a small amount of oil lasting eight nights. Learning these things even came with a distinct flavor. In Judaism, learning is literally supposed to be sweet; after learning a new part of the alef bet, the Hebrew alphabet, we would be rewarded with a stick of honey or a piece of chocolate.
At Grand Bakery, I ended up learning about another slice of history for Jewish bread. One of the bakers told us about the story behind Noah’s New York Bagels, a popular West Coast chain. In 1989, Noah Alper saw that the Bay Area needed bagels. Hailing from a Jewish suburb of Boston, Alper opened the first Noah’s New York Bagels shop in Berkeley, specifically opening it as a kosher kitchen. A 2016 Berkeleyside article quotes Alper describing his plans: “Noah’s wasn’t just going to be a bagel shop. It was going to have a set of values... I wanted to create a place where all kinds of Jews — secular, ultra-Orthodox, Reform, gay, straight — could feel comfortable eating. I had been learning with [an Orthodox] rabbi; I wanted this to be a place where he could eat as well.”
This ethos of inclusivity is certainly inspiring, and representative of the Bay Area embracing a modern approach to being Jewish. As Noah’s expanded around California, however, it struggled to keep this up. Going bankrupt from overexpansion, Alper sold Noah’s New York Bagels to a larger company in 1996. With this consolidation, stores stopped being kosher one by one, starting to serve the popular bacon and cheddar bagel sandwich - something that has never made sense to me (I believe pillowy schmear belongs on bagels, not gluey cheese and oily bacon). Serving bacon and cheese or pepperoni pizza bagels at Noah’s meant appealing to American tastes, but it also made it unavailable to those who eat kosher. In Jewish dietary regulations, eating pork is not permitted, and neither is consuming meat and milk together. Noah’s has always been a great place to get a bagel, although I never thought of it as distinctly Jewish food there. European Ashkenazi Jews share many dishes with Middle Eastern Mizrahi and Spanish Sephardic Jews, but bagels began in Poland. As Jews flocked to New York in the 19th century, bagels became popular in America. With Noah’s, they became a hit on the West Coast too.
The stores eventually excluded observant kosher eaters, but Noah’s delicious classics were introducing many non-Jews people to the magic of a good bagel. Along with the olfactory imprint of butter and honey, the dichotomy of kosher versus Jewish food stayed in my head after Grand Bakery. I have been tempted to label Noah’s as a sell-out chain - or a representative for Jewish food - but maybe that’s not what the story is about.
There certainly is a futility to kosher kitchens; there are no kosher Noah’s left out of 58 stores, and the beloved Grand Bakery closed in 2016. However, kosher food embodies the attention and quality many are currently seeking when they eat.
To sit at a Jewish table always means that you will be fed love. Memories of the Jewish kitchens of my childhood are filled with garlic and screaming and overwhelming heat, but each moment was steeped in deep care. Fish heads, crispy latkes, and matzo balls were all made by my family’s loving hands the way they have been prepared for years. Markook flatbread, baklava, and rugelach were traded between kitchens. Msabbaha hummus and falafel said: we care about you.
Just like the people they feed, foods evolve over time. The history of our people can be seen in every layer of baklava and twist of challah, in the same way it can be viewed in the journey of Noah’s Bagels. In fact, adaptation is perhaps what is most fundamentally Jewish about Noah’s, not its schmear. From baking Matzoh on tired backs to surviving on bread from Moses during 40 long years in the desert, Noah’s fits into a wider story of change for Jewish bread. Even Grand Bakery participated in inevitable transformation; they ended up re-opening and adapted to wholesale selling. They don’t sell babka anymore and you have to eat at home, but you can still buy their macaroons- and they taste as sweet as ever.