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The Mordecai Richler and I.B Singer Yom Kippur Bagel Papers


By David Butler


The Montréal Review, March 2011





Dear Izzy Baby,

Many were the times we noshed at Barney Greengrass and that Garden Cafeteria dump on Grand St where I had to listen to you kvell endlessly about the greatness of the New York bagel. Out of respect for your age and your literary eminence, I always just smiled and nodded. But we are both now long dead, Issalah, and on this Day of Atonement it is time for the honest accounting. Those bagels were dreck. In Montreal, we laugh at your New York bagel chutzpah. Comparing the puffed up, hunks of dough mass produced at any of your famous bagel palaces to the exquisitely, delicate, modestly-sized sesame bagels made at our St. Viatur or Fairmont bakeries is like comparing Moses to Pharoah's magicians or Tupac to Vanilla Ice, or my mama to your mama. Our Montreal bagels are the bomb, Singer; the N'plus ultra, the creme cheese de la creme cheese.

Still Love You Man,




You are a Mishugena. I always suspected derangement since you tried to make that schmuck Duddy Kravitz of yours into a Canadian Jewish culture hero. What kind of facachta name is Duddy anyway? And what New York envy in that book. You even made up your own Catskill borsht belt in those little hills you call the Laurentian mountains. I will admit that you fared better movie- wise with that book than I did with Yentl and that Koorvah Streisand. I even heard you made a few sheckels. Me, bubkus, not that I would have taken a penny from them for that chazaarei musical travesty. But back to bagels. Your famous Montreal bagel bakery is named after a saint? What a shanda. Need I say more?

Still affectionately,




A quick follow-up to my last letter: I have never eaten one of these so called bagels from Montreal- God forbid- but I have been doing some research. The Montreal bagel is distinguished by its sweetness. Are you kidding? What is it a dessert? Do you serve your bagels with those cloyingly sweet maple pies you Canadians are famous for? And is it really true that they add a little maple syrup to the bagel batter? Is that to please all the Quebecois, fur trapping, goyim, antisemits; who, I am told, love these bagels. Will all the polite, well-behaved Montreal Jews bake them for the French only speaking guards when you all end up in camps surrounded by shady maple trees in those picturesque Laurentians?




Morty is furious. Izzy's taunts and insults go far beyond bagels. Morty may have gotten a little carried away with the Tupac and the your mamma stuff but he just wanted to show that old tight assed Singer that he was keeping up with the times - although he worried that his references were probably dated. Izzy was attacking him as a Jew, a writer, a Canadian, a man. Morty needed revenge, but his options were limited. A duel was out of the question, completely anachronistic, and they were both already dead. There was only one way to be vindicated. He would challenge Izzy to a bagel tasting head to head contest: Saint Viateur against any New York bagel. All he needed was a judge they could both accept and who would also pass muster with all their contentious living and dead literary colleagues. No Jewish American writer could be trusted to be objective and Izzy would reject out of hand any Canadian Jew he proposed, even though Canadians could be completely fair minded. The judge clearly had to be a Jew, an eminent writer and a bagel cognoscenti. Suddenly he knew it, there was really only one choice: Franz Kafka.


Dear Franz:

I hope you remember me. I heard you speak at the Dead Jewish Men's Writer's Conference a few years back We were introduced by Wally Benjamin, who I met through a third cousin of Siggy Freud. I am the well-known Canadian Jewish novelist who you asked to point out Canada on the map. You also wanted me to explain why Canada wasn't spelled with a K. Remember. We were drinking Slivovitz and you kept calling me an Anasazi when I told you I was an Ashkenazi? I tried to tell you that the Anasazi were the Indians from Colorado but you didn't believe me.

Anyway, I have a big favor to ask. I am trying to settle this argument I am having with I. B. Singer about bagels. You know Singer I think he says he met you through Sholem Aleichem's niece, or maybe it was Gershem Sholem's nephew. He's the dead Jewish writer who wrote quaint stories about shtetl life from his three bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive.

I know you are a busy man Franz who I suspect hates any beating around the bush- unless of course it's a burning one- ha, ha. So, let me cut right to the chase, as we North Americans say. Franz, would you be willing to be our judge in a bagel-tasting contest comparing New York and Montreal's best bagel? As arguably the greatest Jewish fiction writer of all times who also had the rare privilege as a child to grow up with the aromas and tastes of the legendary Prague Salt Bagel, we would be so honored if you would agree to be our judge.

With love and abiding respect,

Morty Richler


Kafka accepts immediately. He needs a break from all his atoning for sins he never committed. A straightforward bagel judging gig will be a welcome change from the usual routine of always being judged and found guilty. He did ask Morty who else he thought was in the running for greatest Jewish fiction writer, a question Morty manages to deftly avoid answering.

Morty is delighted. Izzy could never say no to a contest with Kafka as the judge. And he thinks victory is in the bag when he hears through the grapevine that the St Viateur recipe originally came from a bakery in Prague. Singer is clearly toast.


Issac bubbie,

Your schticks and stones can break my bones and your bagels will crush my kishkes. Let's settle our dispute like gentlemen with a tasting contest. And who better to judge than our great landsman Franz Kafka who has graciously agreed. So pick you bagel and let the Games begin.

Still your man,



Izzy readily agrees to the contest, confident he will prevail. But alas since his death, the great New York bagel has suffered a cruel fate: The Garden Cafeteria gone; Ratners gone; Greengrass, feh a ghost of it's former glory; Kossars, still bakes a decent bialy, but the bagel, is nothing. H and H, Zabars, mere shadows of their former glory. Izzy was lost in a wilderness of soft fat, mushy, multiple-flavored bagels. He wanders the streets of the West Side, the Lower East Side, Forest Hills, Rego Park. Gone. All those glorious bagel palaces where men would stand in line on Sunday morning patiently waiting for their number to be called, some secretly hoping they could hurry the Meshiach if they waited even longer for the next oven fresh rack of Poppy or Sesame or Everything.

Izzy was now convinced he would lose the contest and that Canadian yutz would laugh at him for all eternity. But that night, the sage Rabbi Hillel came to Izzy in a vision with words of comfort

"Do not despair Issac, my son. Find Moishe in New York he has what you seek"

Izzy is amazed at the vision, but hardly comforted.

" Moishe, that's it? Rabbi please, can you give me a last name at least, a street, maybe a cell, an e-mail anything? ". But Hillel has disappeared.


Meanwhile, Morty is having tsuris of his own. It was that wacky Kafka. Franz had developed a violent allergy to bagels. Even the faint aroma of the St Viateur bakery from several streets away, was enough to start the Czech loon shaking, writhing on the floor, foaming at the mouth. When he recovers from the fit , Franz explains that since he died he has become much more sensitive to traumatic childhood memories. As soon as he smelled the bakery, Kafka was back in Prague. "Papa I want that "he said, distracting his father just as the gleaming blade was about to cut through the bagel. Blood was everywhere and his father screamed out "Stupid Franz, see what you made me do, I should give you another bris"

Circumcision, castration, the judgment of the tyrannical father, Franz would never eat another bagel. They try approaching the bakery again, this time with Kafka heavily medicated but within seconds he is writhing on the ground, useless. For a foolish moment, Morty wonders if Proust might be available to replace Kafka. But he sees this is only hope born of desperation. The French know nothing of bagels, and Proust will deny he is a Jew anyway. Without a judge there is no contest.

Izzy searches all over the city for Moishe the bagel baker. He manages to find several Moishes who bake Matzoh, ten kosher butchers, even a Puerto Rican named Moseis, who bakes bagels for Dunkin Donut. He gives up convinced Izzy will win by default.


Hillel orders a sesame bagel with a schmeer from St Viateur. He instantly transports himself to Moishes bakery in Munsey New York where he orders a second sesame bagel with a schmeer. The Rabbi laughs to himself. How provincial these New Yorkers are, nothing exists outside the five boroughs. Hillel tastes both bagels. They are equally tasteless, compared to the bagel of bagels the righteous are served in heaven at the table of HASHEM.

Bless His Name Forever.


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