There’s a jokey aside I sometimes make when people ask me where in London I grew up. Because they often look a bit baffled by the words “Hampstead Garden Suburb”, I tend to follow up with “right in the heart of London’s bagel belt”. This tickles them, while also conveying a useful message: big Jew over here, childhood crammed with chopped liver and Holocaust documentaries and trips to Eilat.
But I realised recently this aside misses something quite important. There is a bagel belt in London, running roughly, I would suggest, from St John’s Wood to Hendon. But there is also a beigel belt, which takes in all of Essex, Ilford and Redbridge, Southgate, and also has territory in parts of outer north London such as Elstree and Borehamwood.
Which do you say, bagel or beigel? For the uninitiated, who have probably already given up, these variations are pronounced “baygel” and “bye-gal”. The former is considered more “westernised”, the latter more faithful to how it might have been said in Yiddish, though with a slight cockney twinge. Either way, your choice of noun tells you something quite important about your Anglo-Jewish identity.
I am firmly in the former camp, so much so that when I wrote a recent column for this newspaper about bagels, I made another jokey aside about how people shouldn’t say beigel anymore “because it’s not the 1970s”. I then followed up by proclaiming on Twitter/X that saying beigel is an “outmoded affectation”.
Why did I suggest that saying beigel is outmoded? I guess because saying beigel for me conjures up images of the Brick Lane rag trade and Whitechapel tenements, damp back rooms where young men would sleep on meagre cot beds and contract tuberculosis. I felt that beigel belonged in the crumbling Jewish cemeteries of Mile End and East Ham, a linguistic relic, an early 20th-century word that has died out with so many bubbes and zeides.
It evokes a half-Yiddish world that, for better and worse, is pretty much gone.
Yet the strength of the response to my assertion proved otherwise. I was — semi-jokingly — called a snob. I was accused of Essex erasure, Manchester erasure, Sephardi erasure and of dismissing the proud Jewish heritage of the East End.
All true, sort of. This is indeed a southern debate — you’d be laughed out of Brackman’s for saying beigel up in Manchester’s Broughton Park. And it’s an Ashkenazi debate, too, as the bagel is perhaps our only truly global food export. The Sephardim, with their heaving buffet of gastronomic bangers, can look on smugly.
But taking all this into account, what I’ve learned from this debate is that whether you say bagel or beigel says quite a lot about what type of British Jew you are.
I would suggest that you’re more likely to say beigel if you support Tottenham Hotspur or West Ham — as opposed to, say, Arsenal or Chelsea. This maps somewhat onto the divide between the inner and outer London Jew: St John’s Wood versus Totteridge, Belsize Park versus Loughton, Zone 2 versus Zone 5. (There will, of course, I realise, be many exceptions — these are generalisations.)
What bagel or beigel really tells you, then, is how close you are — culturally, linguistically, geographically — to your East End heritage.
In response to my tweet, my esteemed JC colleague David Aaronovitch suggested that this might be a “rich Jew, poor Jew thing”. I don’t think saying beigel is a particular indicator of richness or poverty.
But whether you say bagel or beigel probably is an indicator of proximity to the old Jewish East End. The more continuity you have with the passing civilisation that was Jewish Whitechapel, the more likely you are to say beigel.
I think beigel people probably speak in accents that are slightly closer to the old East End too. This isn’t really a wealth divide, but David is right to point out there probably is a class one: haute-bourgeois intelligentsia vs solidly middle class merchants.
I wonder if there’s also a refraction of the old divide between cosmopolitan Germanic Jews and the more Yiddishe “Ostjuden” of the Pale of Settlement, with say Hampstead and Stanmore representing the two archetypes.
This divide is, of course, also generational. Many Jews of my generation may remember a grandparent who said beigel, but now everyone in Britain knows what these strange delicious circlets are. They stock them — or something that is supposed to be them — in Asda, so it makes sense to all pronounce the word in common English.
But it’s the grandparents point that really matters, I think. Because what I missed about beigel, the reason it really endures and the reason I was wrong to dismiss it, is that the use of beigel is an expression of the most Jewish impulse of all: the desire to connect with one’s ancestors, to wrap ourselves in history and keep our traditions alive through the twin totems of food and language.
Saying beigel is an exercise in nostalgia, which is something all Jews can get behind.
Josh Glancy is editor of the News Review at the Sunday Times