When I returned to Detroit from Adamah, the Jewish Environmental Fellowship in 2008, I had only two things on my mind: food and Jews. Having grown up in the Detroit suburbs, I had never before grown my own food. Coming of age in a secular family that belonged to a large Reform congregation, I had never sung Jewish songs, and had never celebrated Shabbat. At Adamah, we sang at every opportunity, and felt the meaning of Shabbat through the grateful rest of our aching muscles. From the moment I returned to Detroit, this time to the urban center instead of the 3rd ring suburb of my youth, I wondered if there would be some way to lead a Jewish life as rich and grounded as life at Adamah had been. There were a few realities that allowed me to excuse this as an impossible dream.
First, most of Detroit’s Jewish population exited the city for the suburbs over the course of the 50s and 60s. Much of this exit was motivated by post-WWII upward mobility, demographic shifts, and consequent racial tension. Also, most Jewish communities I’ve known in my life have been defined by insularity and exceptionalism, which led to my belief that, because the city of Detroit is 85% black, any Jewish Renaissance within its boarders was more likely to result in gentrification than integration.
I’ve been basking in the glory of a vibrant Jewish food community since moving to Detroit in 2009. From bountiful shabbat potlucks, heated debates about the role of urban agriculture, and teaching Jewish “Farm to Fork” curricula in suburban Jewish institutions, my friends and I have been busy. Despite of all the excitement, there has been one glaring absence: Bagels. I’m not just talking about authentic Jewish boiled bagels either — from Einstein’s to Detroit Bagel, all things round, doughy and savory have followed the mainstream Jewish population out of the city and into the suburbs. This was a situation that needed addressing!
While the intensity of my desires and my do-it-yourself attitude had me plugging away at rudimentary efforts to make sourdough bagels, a more yeasty affair rolled into town: the Detroit Institute of Bagels. Two brothers, hoping to start a bagel business, had asked to kick things off with a bagel fundraiser at my synagogue. As a self-titled “spontaneous preservationist” (I run a pickle/preserves business called Suddenly Sauer) and a less than capable baker, I eagerly re-assessed my goals and switched from bagel baking to finding an old world, nutritious, and delicious way to make the perfect schmear.