When you are a rabbi, people like to ask you questions. Sometimes the questions are asked in the search for information, and sometimes they are asked to stump me or to point out contradictions. Someone once asked why, if we can’t mix milk and meat or milk and chicken, we can mix milk and fish. My somewhat snarky answer was, “Because God commanded us to eat bagels, lox, and cream cheese.”
While I may have been sarcastic, there actually is a debate on the question among rabbinic authorities. Some indeed extended the prohibition of mixing flesh and dairy to fish, although some of these rabbis did so for reasons of danger, not kashrut. Nonetheless, there were some Sephardic rabbis who were opposed to the practice, but maybe that’s because they never got to experience the sublime combination of a New York water bagel, salty lox, and a schmear of cream cheese.
While the last sentence may be a joke, it is certainly true that one of the quintessential American Jewish foods has virtually nothing to do with ancient Jewish traditions. Moses of the Bible, not to mention Moses Maimonides or even Moses Mendelssohn, never had the dish in their lives. As Rabbi Jeffrey Marx, in an interview with the Forward explains, a bagel and schmear is “the story of Jews in America”.
The bagel itself did originate in Eastern Europe, and there Jews ate it with smoked fish, but it was herring, not lox. Only when salmon could be shipped from the Pacific Northwest to the Northeast, did Jews switch to a fancier, more expensive fish. Cream cheese was only invented in the 1870s when a New York cheesemaker trying to up the fat content of French Neufchâtel stumbled on a new, distinctly American variety. The combination reflects the Jewish experience in America with its mix of tradition, affluence, technological change, and innovation.
This year, however, it seems that the bagel and schmear is endangered by a cream cheese shortage. Lots of reasons have been cited: global supply chain disruptions, worker shortages, and my personal favorite: New Yorkers’ desire for what seems like a whole block of cheese on their bagel. When I lived in the city, I always asked the shop to go easy on the cheese (scallion, of course), especially if the bagel was hot. I’m not a big fan of a pound of cream cheese spilling out the back of my bagel.
It turns out, however, that the great cream cheese shortage of 2021 may have more to do with increased demand and the limited availability of water in the upstate New York village that is home to one of Kraft’s production facilities. Cream cheese may be the fuel that runs New York City, but the town, understandably, would like to be able to take showers and flush the toilet.
Things may calm down after the first of the year when demand lightens because cream cheese, like so may other “Jewish” foods in America, has been enthusiastically adopted by non-Jews in this country. While the cheesecake may be associated with Jewish institutions like Juniors, it has become a popular Christmas dessert, and this year Kraft will actually pay customers to not use its cream cheese to make them because of the shortage. Just don’t ask New Yorkers to forgo their bagel and schmear. That would be a shanda.