Why bagel theory holds the Jewish world together

The December holidays found me gliding through the Indian Ocean on the MSC Orchestra, enjoying my first ever cruise.

I loved it. From the delicious Italian food, to the feathered and sequined dancers, to lounging by the pool, it was pure holiday magic from start to finish. 

I cover my hair, so I ended up wearing hats everywhere on the ship. It was a summer cruise, and I didn’t look too out of place. I also wore my Hebrew name on a chain around my neck, as I have done every day since it was given to me on my Momentum Trip to Israel by my roommate. So picture me, dressed as secular as I can on a summer cruise, (with shoulders, knees and head covered) and my name, illegible to everyone on board (so I think) around my neck, when I get a tap on the shoulder. 

‘Do you know what that is?” demands a grey-haired man with a walker, not in an unfriendly way. “Yes, it’s my Hebrew name” I respond, slightly nervously. His whole face lights up and suddenly we are playing Jewish Geography in the middle of the sea. Stu and I walk away chuckling and wondering if by the end of the cruise we could make a minyan.

Well, we definitely found more than our minyan on that ship. But it was only half the fun finding the people who were Jewish. The other half of the fun came from letting them know that we were Jewish too.

The phenomenon of bageling, or bagel theory, posits that Jews have such a strong need to connect to other Jews that they find ways to ‘out’ themselves when in the company of people that they suspect are Jewish. 

There are two kinds of bageling, overt plain-bagel bageling, when you walk up to someone and say “Hi, I’m Jewish, you?” and subtle, fancy-bagel bageling, when you sidle up to someone at the buffet and whisper “Boy, I wish they were serving kneidel with the soup tonight”.

My favourite way to bagel, when I am out with my kids, is to call my eldest daughter’s name loud enough for the suspected Jews to hear, and then watch for a reaction. This is usually followed by me sighing and saying “oy” a lot until they get the message — or perhaps wonder why I’m complaining so much. My best is when I watch the suspected Jewish person bagel me back in the way I just bageled them, by shouting near me with a vague nasal quality “Joshie!! Oy, can you just stay still!” and then smiling at me. I swear, these interactions warm my heart.

I do sometimes get it wrong. There is a sort of 60ish-year-old female type, with a slight Afrikaans accent and a short hairdo, I think she is Jewish from a small town, but it turns out she’s Afrikaans. And sometimes Greek families confuse me too. But generally I get it right. And you probably do too. That subtle something that says “I know you, you are like me”.

One of my best memories of our trip was the ‘Check your Mate’ one evening, where one of the couples who were chosen to go up were not only the longest married couple on the ship, but also members of The Tribe. Listening to them on stage reminded me of my parents-in-law, it was fabulous and hilarious, but sorry I can’t share; what happens on the ship stays on the ship.

Finding Jews on board made us feel at home. It’s what sews the Jewish world together. That ship was so full of ‘bagel’ I’m surprised it could float.

To read or download the February issue of the Chronicle in PDF click here

To read the most read article of the December/January issue, click here

Portal to the Jewish Community: to see a list of all the Jewish organisations in Cape Town with links to their websites, click here


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