Tag Archives: bagels

Stay Salty, Smoked Salmon

by Theodore Samets

Growing up, I was scared of lox.

Well, at least I thought it was lox. Turned out, the slimy, pinkish orange, cold fish I abhorred—but have come to love—wasn’t lox at all, as my parents called it. It was nova.

As I grew older, I fell in love with the stuff. But in rural Vermont, where I grew up, it can be hard to find anything but pre-packaged “smoked Atlantic salmon,” $5.99 for a four-ounce package.

Then, a few weeks before my bar mitzvah, friends of my parents brought some fresh lox back from Montreal. It looked the same as smoked salmon, but boy was it different. I was a man; it was time to give up kids’ fish and move to the grownup version.

I had been introduced to belly lox, and life would never be the same.

Incredibly salty, bright orange, and full of flavor, belly lox isn’t smoked; it’s cured. Fold it over a half of a sesame bagel—with cream cheese, of course—and you feel like you’re eating the real deal.

There is no debate as quintessentially Jewish as “nova vs. lox”; experts move beyond this question to “Russ and Daughters vs. Zabar’s” and “Montreal vs. New York bagels.” (For me, there’s no question: If there was a way to get fresh Russ and Daughters lox onto a just out of the oven “white” Montreal bagel, I’d be in heaven.)

Fans of belly lox know one thing: We’re in a minority. Indeed, on a recent visit to Russ and Daughters, I ordered lox, only to be asked by the woman behind the counter, “Are you sure that’s what you want?”

“Yes,” I responded, “Belly lox please.” Many people, it seems, order lox when they really want smoked salmon.

Despite the supposed Jewish affinity for either type of cold salmon, it seems accidental that lox is a Jewish food at all. Several years ago, a New York Times exposé looked at just how lox and a bagel became the stereotypical New York brunch.

In the essay, Erika Kinetz wrote that it was a feat of timing combined with the then-inexpensive costs that connected smoked fish to the Jews:

Eastern European immigrants would have appreciated lox both for its price—9 cents for a quarter-pound in the 1920’s and 30’s—and for its convenience. It was easy to handle — and pareve, making it acceptable with milk or meat. It fast became a staple.

Today, lox may still be a staple of the Jewish diet, but it’s certainly not cheap. My lunchtime order (belly lox and light plain on toasted everything) at Ess-a-Bagel runs $10.75 before tax, and a quarter pound of fish there will run you $9.25. That said, it’s worth every penny.

Despite the differences between lox and smoked salmon – and let’s be clear, these differences are important – there’s something that makes the fish a unique connector between Jews all over North America.

Kinetz points out that, historically, lox is more of a New York phenomenon than a Jewish one. The claim is verified by by Leo Rosten in The Joys of Yiddish, where he writes, “The luxurious practice of eating lox, thought to be so typical of eastern European Jews, actually began for them in New York. Lox was almost unknown among European Jews.” Still, the fish has taken on a life of its own among Jews. Lox’s natural partner, the bagel—according to Rosten, first mentioned in print in the 1610 Community Regulations of Cracow, which stated that “bagels would be given as a gift to any woman in childbirth”—has been part of Jewish cuisine for 400 years, making “lox and bagels” an appropriate alternative for expressing oneself as Jewish in the ever-complicated “religion” box on Facebook.

Bagels may have the more overtly Jewish history, but they’ve become part of the American culinary mélange. (It’s hard to imagine, but less than 30 years ago, only one in three Americans had tried a bagel.) Even though it’s the bagel that’s Jewish more than lox, the orange fish still has a Jewish air about it, as it’s intrinsically linked to the food with which it is most commonly served.

If recent musings in the Times and elsewhere are any indication, the assumed Jewish connection to cold, salty orange fish isn’t going anywhere. In an era where Jewish leaders are worried that future generations won’t hold on to everything from federations to Israel to kashrut, lox seems safe.

Just don’t tell those young people that what they’re eating might not actually be lox.

Jewish History in China Boosting Sino-Israeli Relations

by Amanda Walgrove

Chinese and Jewish cultures are among the oldest remaining civilizations in the world. Besides the spiritual divide, both cultures highly value family life and educational pursuits, and although both have absorbed various other cultures, their central foundations remain strong. As developments in the Middle East have begun to change the landscape of Israel’s international relationships, China has become a central player for it. While China’s attitude towards Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons are worrisome, efforts are still being made to boost tourism, trade, and communicative cooperation between Israel and China. Most recently, on March 2, visiting Chinese Commerce Minister Chen Deming met with Israeli President Peres and Prime Minister Netanyahu with intentions of enhancing economic cooperation between the two countries. Although Sino-Israeli relations were first officially established as late as 1992, China’s history with people of the Jewish faith dates back to the eighth century.

Dr. Pan Guang, Director of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies Center and Dean of the Center of Jewish Studies Shanghai, has developed a recent project, Jews in China: Legends, History, and New Perspectives, which outlines the history of Jewish and Chinese relations, beginning with the four waves of Jewish immigration to China. As early as the eighth century, Jews from the Middle East traveled over the Silk Road to Kaifeng and formed a Kaifeng Jewish Community during the Song Dynasty. Many became government officials, doctors, clergymen, and businessmen. They assimilated into Chinese culture, learned the language, and began to intermarry.

While in China, Jews established a Chinese style synagogue in Kaifeng, influenced by Confucianism but modeled after Jerusalem synagogues. Jews had their own clubs, hospitals, cemeteries, and volunteer corps. Russian Jews had a fur bank in Shanghai, and opened the “Siberian Fur Store.” They founded over fifty newspapers that ran in over eight languages, such as the Israel Messenger (founded in 1904) and the Gelbe Post. The Kadoorie family opened a school for refugee children, free of charge, where many first learned to speak English. Mordechai Olmert, father of the former prime minister of Israel, grew up in Harbin. Most notoriously, China opened its doors to over 30,000 of refugees fleeing from the German occupation after 1938.

Not only did Chinese and Jewish cultures share certain core values, but they were also both subject to political persecution. After thousands of Jewish refugees arrived in Shanghai between 1937 and 1941, millions of Shanghai residents themselves became refugees after the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Nearly 35 million Chinese were killed and wounded by the Japanese fascists during wartime. Chinese were sympathetic towards anti-Semitic suffering. In his lecture, Guang noted that while prejudice may be imported, there has never been any native anti-Semitism on China’s soil. At the core, Chinese are influenced by Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism, but they remain accepting of other spiritual aspirations. On a stone monument erected in 1489, Kaifeng Jews wrote: “Our religion and Confucianism differ only in minor details. In mind and deed both respect Heaven’s Way, venerate ancestors, are loyal to sovereigns and ministers, and filial to parents. Both call for harmony with wives and children, respect for rank, and for making friends.” In turn, Jews in China supported the Chinese national-democratic movement against Japanese aggression and many began working with the Chinese Underground. Morris “Two-Gun” Cohen famously acted as aide-de camp to Dr. Sun Yat-sen and rose to be a general in the Chinese Army.

Considering themselves, “old China hands,” Chinese Jews now live throughout the world and often return to their Chinese roots to visit old friends. Many have invested in business enterprises and taken advantage of their former home’s new upsurge of development. The commercially successful Shanghai Diamond Exchange Center, for example, was the brainchild of refugee, Shaul Eisenberg. But how do these amiable cultural assimilations tie in with current relations with Israel? Representative of the Schusterman Foundation and Project Interchange believe that by establishing and expanding Israel-related scholarship in China will create opportunities for deepened cultural ties and mutual appreciation between the Chinese and Jewish people, as well as an enhanced relationship between China and Israel. YNetNews.com writes, “Despite interest in Jewish culture, Middle East policy and even Hebrew language, few Chinese scholars have ever traveled to Israel, and Israel is rarely…the explicit subject of scholarly research.”

Today, Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas in the world, contains only 5,000 to 6,000 Jews (Guang argues that newspapers underreport the number at 3,000, excluding those that do not attend synagogue). While many Jews were pressured to leave China during the Cultural Revolution, the impact shared between the two communities stands strong today. Culturally, Jews in China became an academic hot topic during the 1980s and 1990s and subsequently extended to mass media. There is a wealth of Jewish how-to literature as well as a fascination with the Jewish mystique. Some Kaifeng Jews still follow dietary laws that resemble kashrut. Jordan Maseng, a native New Yorker working in China, recently opened up his own bagel shop in Beijing. Guang noted that there are over forty documentaries about Jewish relations in China but a narrative film has yet to be made. With a mixture of jest and sincerity, Guang admitted that he has many ideas but none of them seem good enough, rather adding the assertion, “We want a movie like Schindler’s List.”  Until that happens, Chinese Jews will continue to slowly contribute to the culture, while the rest of the Jewish population indulges in Chinese food.