In Life and Death, Boichik Bagels Knits Bay Area Jews Together

There’s a communal aspect to a plate of handmade, warm carbs from Boichik Bagels that’s hard to share in words. But it’s a feeling that weaves so many Bay Area Jews together.

When the New York Times called Emily Winston’s Berkeley-based Boichik Bagels the best bagel place in America, random New Yorkers started phoning her store to scream at her and call her general manager a bitch. That’s how emotionally salient bagels can be.

As a Jew, I know the almost-sacred role that bagels play in my own culture. Bagels are associated with the Ashkenazi side of the Jewish diaspora–the Jews who historically lived in Eastern Europe. My grandfather was a first-generation Polish immigrant, so a love of bagels is practically in my DNA.

When I spoke to Winston just after the New York Times’ historic declaration, she said many of the things you’d expect to hear from a small business owner. She wanted to grow her business by opening new locations. Hiring and staffing were challenging. Maintaining quality while scaling would be tough. Sustainability was crucial.

But Winston also told me something different. She didn’t just want to make the best bagel in the Bay Area–she also wanted her bagels to play a major role in the cultural and spiritual life of Bay Area Jews.

As the Jews Have Kept Bagels, Bagels Have Kept the Jews

Simchas (Jewish lifecycle events) and holidays are key to our people’s culture. And if you’re an Ashkenazi Jew like me, bagels are always present at those events. At everything from a baby naming or bris, to the kiddush lunch after a bat mitzvah, to the meal which breaks the sacred fast on Yom Kippur, you’ll find bagels. 

And more specifically, here in the Bay Area, you’ll increasingly find Winston’s bagels. As the world opens up and more people celebrate Simchas and holidays in person, a big blue bag of Boichik bagels has become something of a necessity for a Jewish event, at least in the East Bay.

We’ve been getting catering orders now that people have started having parties again!” Winston told me in an email.

I can vouch for that. It seems that everywhere I go these days, I find Winston’s bagels. At the casual get-togethers for a Havurah (a group of Jewish friends who gather informally,) I’ll find them. At kids’ birthday parties, Boichik bagels are there. At a friend’s daughter’s fifth birthday party, I arrived to find a giant spread of Winston’s bagels, including a massive bagel baked into the shape of a 5.

Winston caters for weddings, corporate functions, and much else. But in Judaism, bagels don’t just accompany us in life. They also follow us into death.

Bagels in Life, and Death

The Shiva is a period of mourning after a Jewish person dies. For seven days after their death, their family members open their homes to members of the community, who stop by to express their condolences or just to be there with the grieving family.

It’s customary to bring food, so the mourners can focus on their loved ones and not worry about feeding themselves or their guests. Bagels are a traditional choice, and Winston has started to supply the bagels for more and more Bay Area Shivas, a duty she told me she takes very seriously. If God forbid, I met an untimely end, I’d want her bagels there at mine.

It’s been a gradual process, but a little bit at a time, Winston‘s bagels have gone from a hidden gem known only to a few insiders to a staple of the Bay Area’s Jewish communities. And some very real and visceral sense, her bagels help to bring those communities closer together.

Bagels might not seem like much, but among people that have been dispersed to the corners of the world – often by violence – foodways are a crucial way to preserve our culture and avoid assimilating so fully can lose track of who we are.

Bagels Building Community

New York’s fantastic bagels have always been a point of pride for its Jewish communities. And the Bay Area’s relative lack of good bagels was always the source of a vague amount of shame. Serving supermarket bagels at a Jewish function makes it feel a little bit less special–maybe even a little less Jewish

Before Boichik arrived, any Jewish event in the Bay Area always included a bit of grumbling about how bagels on the West coast are a poor substitute for the “real” ones in Manhattan. Whenever I flew to New York on a business trip before the pandemic, I would bring back two dozen bagels to freeze and doll out to grateful friends and family members.

Compared to the very real physical threats Jewish communities face, a lack of good bagels is a comparatively minor issue. Still, when a people’s identity is tied up in food–and for many transplants like me, memories of Jewish food from back East–missing that food feels like missing a part of your cultural and spiritual identity. 

The presence of Winston’s bagels (and a growing list of similarly authentic Bay Area bagel places and delis) helps to remedy that, at least in some small way. Winston’s success speaks to her intelligence, engineering skills, and the chutzpah of an entrepreneur. She’s built a thriving female and LGBTQ-owned business, with a new factory recently opened.

But her biggest accomplishment isn’t in building a business or baking America’s best bagel. It’s in creating something tangible and powerful that knits Jewish communities together and makes Jewish life in the Bay Area more vibrant, self-confident, engaged…and delicious.

Thomas Smith is a food and travel photographer and writer based in Lafayette. He is Editor-in-Chief of the Bay Area Telegraph and writes about generative AI on Synthetic Engineers. You can find him on Twitter at @tomsmith585


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