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The Bialy—the Bagel’s Long-Neglected Cousin—Tries for a Comeback

At Kossar’s on the Lower East Side, new owners hope that combining a new look with old recipes will save bialys from extinction

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(Erik Ofgang)
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While bagels have become a standard part of the American diet—for Jews and non-Jews alike—the bialy, the bagel’s relative in the Polish bread world, has seen a steady decline in popularity. One of the few places in the world (perhaps the only place, claim its owners) where true, traditional bialy-making survives is Kossar’s Bialys on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

“The bialy, which comes from Bialystok, Poland, is a lost bread of a lost world,” explained David Zablocki, who purchased Kossar’s a year ago with Evan Giniger and a third partner who has since sold his stake. “If you were to go to Bialystok today you would find no remnant of that bread or the people who made it.”

That’s why Zablocki says, “The bialy is an endangered species.”

“Even within its own environment, within its own culture, it is becoming less and less known, less understood,” he told me in a recent interview. “Most people who do a bialy today use the same ingredients and the same kitchen as they do for bagels, and although bialys and bagels are cousins, they’re not twins; they can’t survive on the same equipment and ingredients.”

To begin with, bialys are just baked, not boiled and baked like bagels, and the ingredients are different. “A bialy has no fat, it’s got no sugar in it of any kind, it’s not fried, and it doesn’t have any oil,” Zablocki said. “It is a pretty healthy bread, designed to be eaten fresh and to be eaten daily, while a bagel is loaded with calories.”

For Zablocki, preserving the bialy—which he describes as a “Jewish English muffin”—is about more than just keeping a convenient alternative to the bagel alive; it’s about saving a link to the past. It may sound dramatic, but he’s not the only one who thinks that way. New York Times food critic Mimi Sheraton begins her nonfiction book The Bialy Eaters (one of the only works in the bialy literary canon) with a quote from Samuel Pisar, a Holocaust survivor and prominent lawyer who marveled as a group of ethnically diverse workers ate bialys: “To each of them, it was simply a tasty snack. How could they know they were partaking of something sacred—a bread that evoked the bittersweet memories of a cultured and tragic corner of Eastern Poland?”

When Zablocki and Giniger took over Kossar’s they decided they would modernize the shop while staying true to bialy-making traditions. Step one of that process has already been implemented: The bialy recipe they use today is not the same as the one the previous owners used for the last decade or so; it is a more traditional recipe based as closely as possible on the original Kossar family recipe. The next step will involve giving the shop a cosmetic facelift and making it more user-friendly for customers. Zablocki believes the combination of these tactics will revitalize Kossar’s and consequently the bialy. “The bialy is about to be reborn,” he said. “Like a phoenix from the fire, the bialy will rise again to be a well-known bread from the Lower East Side of New York.”

***

Rebecca A. Kobrin, a historian of American Jewish History at Columbia University and author of Jewish Bialystok and Its Diaspora, explains that the bialy was the traditional regional bread of Bialystok in northeastern Poland: “The bagel, which everybody knows, is the food of all of Poland, but bialys were regional to the Bialystok area,” she told me in a phone interview, noting that Bialystok was a largely Jewish city. “At times it was 70 percent Jewish. So, it’s not only Jews who make and eat bialys, but it’s predominantly Jews who make them because that’s who’s living there.”

Like many foods, the exact origins of the bialy are unknown, but the word “bialy” means white in Polish, and the name seems to be derived from the white flour that coats the bread.

Jews from Bialystok started immigrating to the United States in the 1870s, many settling on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Kossar’s was opened in 1936 by Isadore Mirsky and Morris Kossar on Clinton Street. It soon become the unofficial American bialy-making holy site, and over the decades it helped to spread the gospel of this Polish-Jewish bread far and wide.

Around the same time Kossar’s opened, trouble was brewing in Bialystok, as WWII broke out. In August 1939 the Nazis and Soviets agreed to a nonaggression pact in which they divided up Poland and other Eastern European countries. The Germans occupied Bialystok in September 1939 but immediately turned control of the city over to the Soviets in accordance with the terms of the pact. “With Soviet rule less threatening than Nazi conquest,” said Kobrin, “the city’s Jewish population swelled from 107,000 in 1938 to over 250,000 by December 1939.”

However, relief from Nazi rule was short-lived for Bialystok’s Jews. In June 1941 the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, and almost immediately Bialystok fell under German control; for Jewish inhabitants of the city, the real nightmare began. “The first thing they [Germans] did was they herded about 2,000 Jews into the synagogue and they burned it down,” Kobrin said. “From a total population of 250,000 Jews before the Nazi invasion, there were about 140 left after.”

In the years following the war, only about 40 or so Jews remained in Bialystok. “It’s basically a whole new city after the war,” said Kobrin, “and it’s not a Jewish city.”

The slaughter of Bialystock’s Jews meant that, after 1940, bialys in Bialystok became a thing of the past. When Sheraton traveled there in the 1990s for her book about bialys, she found that none existed and the memory of the bread had been mostly eradicated from the area. (A few years after her visit, she learned a store selling bialys had opened in Bialystok—named, ironically enough, New York Bagels.)

Bialys survived outside of Poland and the reaches of the Third Reich, mostly in select locations like New York, Montreal, and Buenos Aires, and even in these cities their visibility decreased over time. In the 1950s, Manhattan’s Lower East Side was still home to a robust bialy baking industry, with its own union. In fact, the fire that burned down the original Kossar’s location in the late ’50s may have been set by competing bialy bakeries involved in a union dispute with Kossar’s. The bakery was quickly rebuilt at its current location at 367 Grand Street.

But over the years the bialy competition has thinned, so now Kossar’s alone occupies the bialy throne on the Lower East Side. Kobrin theorizes the difficulty in making bialys has something to do with their lack of popularity. “Bagels are easier to make,” she explained. “Because they’re boiled, you can make hundreds and hundreds of bagels much easier than hundreds and hundreds of bialys.”

Either way, bialys are less common than they once were. That’s something Zablocki and Giniger vow to change. “I can only hope that we’re an inspiration,” said Zablocki, “and bialys are once again a standard bread in this country or elsewhere.”

***

Zablocki is not Jewish, but with his stocky build and vintage-Matisyahu beard, this Manhattan native and self-proclaimed “Sabbath goy” easily could pass for a member of the tribe. A Catholic with Polish ancestry, he grew up enjoying the magic of bialys at Kossar’s, where his dad brought him regularly during the 1970s. “I remember going into a hot, hot place that was crowded with bags of bread all over the floors and the walls, and smelling that rich onion smell,” he recalled.

Zablocki graduated from the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont. He worked in the restaurant industry throughout the United States before returning to the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, where he launched Wine Cellar Sorbets, which distributed frozen sorbet wine; for a time, it was available nationally at Whole Foods stores. When the venerable New York bagel institution H&H closed its Upper West Side store in 2011, Zablocki and his partners decided to open a bagel shop that would save the classic New York bread that Zablocki believed had fallen into decline. “It had become big and fluffy and filled with sugar, and just wasn’t what I remember as a child,” he said of the bagel. But fate had other plans for this would-be bagel savior.

As Zablocki and his partners were looking into launching a bagel business, they learned that Kossar’s was up for sale. They purchased it in 2013 from Juda and Debra Engelmayer and Daniel and Malki Cohen, who had bought the bakery in 1998 from Morris Kossar’s son-in-law and daughter, Daniel and Gloria Kossar Scheinin.

“We came in with the idea of rescuing the bagel, and it was almost as if the universe said to us we need to rescue the bialy first,” Zablocki said. They didn’t abandon their bagel dream, however; Kossar’s has had a separate bagel kitchen in the basement, where Zablocki and company churn out delicious bagels using a traditional late-1800s-style recipe. “We are stewards of this brand,” Zablocki said. “We have an obligation to bring the level of quality back to what it was when the Kossars had it.”

Today, the shop has a somewhat Spartan look, with the feel of a warehouse or supplier facility. The owners plan a makeover. “[Remodeling] will allow us to better serve the community,” Zablocki said. “We are going to honor all the traditions and make sure this place is properly representative of its age and culture while bringing it into the new millennium.”

Whatever new ideas the owners have, some things never change at Kossar’s. The mighty brick oven in the kitchen survived the fire at the store’s original location some 60 years ago, and has been in constant use since then, churning out about 400 dozen bialys a day. “We’re keeping the flame alive,” worker Hesh (a k a “Hash”) Halper told me, only half-joking, as he eyed the oven.

***

“Bialys are a part of Jewish identity,” said customer Jack Eisenstein, 77, who has been going to Kossar’s for 55 years. He said the place had declined in quality in recent years, but the new owners have brought the classic Kossar’s bialy taste back.

Even during a “slow” time of day on a Tuesday afternoon, customers stop by in a steady stream for bialys or bagels. Many have some Jewish ancestry, like Judah Friedlander—the comedian who played Frank Rossitano on 30 Rock and who stopped in a day before I visited. But the appeal of bialys, at least on this relatively quiet block in lower Manhattan, is not limited to Jews alone. “We get Chinese, Spanish, Jewish, black, white, everyone,” said Halper.

Halper grew up eating bialys, but coworker Neil Cassetana, who is of mixed Haitian and Italian heritage, had never even heard of them before getting this job. “Now I’m addicted,” Cassetana said.

In addition to creating new bialy converts, the bakery also is feeding the bialy craving of the next generation of Jews. “I’ve been coming here literally my whole life,” said Danielle Roth, 20, whose parents brought her as a baby. “I can’t really think of anywhere else to get a bialy.”

Her only complaint? The heat coming from the ever-burning flame of Kossar’s oven. “It’s a great establishment,” she said on a recent summer day, “but it’d be a little better if there was an air-conditioner.”

***

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The Bialy—the Bagel’s Long-Neglected Cousin—Tries for a Comeback

At Kossar’s on the Lower East Side, new owners hope that combining a new look with old recipes will save bialys from extinction