One of my first paying jobs was at Marion’s Bagel Bakery in the Gallery mall in Center City owned by Nathan Greenspan originally from Brooklyn, New York.Bagels are boiled before they go in the oven to bake. It’s the step that sets the crust and keeps the bagel dense. As the first batches of bagels were baked early everyday, the aroma wafted throughout the first floor of the mall drawing in the first morning rush of customers on their way to work.
Nathan arrived at the bakery every morning at 5 a.m. to roll out from the walk-in, a trolley of shelves loaded with raw bagels that were mixed and rolled the day before and now ready to proof . He would fill the kettle and fired it up with the oven.
Nathan seemed to be the figure and manner of a grisly man. It was all on the surface and for show, because like a bagel, Nathan was crusty on the outside, but soft on the side. He had soft heart underneath his gravelly voice and husky build.
Nathan was a New Yorker, born and raised. He transplanted his business and family, opening two shops, one in a New Jersey mall and the other in the Philadelphia mall. The move from New York was so he and his wife Marion, would be closer to his daughter while she went to Medical School at Temple, “The univoisity, not the shul,” he loved to say with a chuckle.
Nathan’s bagels were uniformly awesome, mixed from scratch in a huge industrial kettle sized mixer, with only high gluten flour and solid cake yeast. It amazed me that nothing was written down as to measurements of what ingredient or how much and he matched the previous batch of whatever kind he was making at the time, always consistent and always tasty. Cinnamon raisin, Pumpernickel, Plain, Sesame, Poppy, it didn’t matter, everyday they were consistent in taste and size. Sometimes he would leave a batch in the oven a little longer just to make a crustier batch, one of my favorites. I personally liked the more well-done bagel.About once a month, Nathan would make a dozen Bialys, just one dozen, because he said nobody would know what they were. Nathan’s bialys were the same dough as his bagels, but not boiled and flattened with a center of chopped onions and poppy seeds. They were sort of like an onion roll but different, not as sweet, and awesome with tuna fish or egg salad, of which were the most popular lunch sandwiches we served. At lunch time, like a cafeteria line outside the shop counter, there was never less than a dozen or more customers waiting to place their order.
Marion’s Bagel shop was a ‘strictly dairy’ establishment, no meat was served or ever allowed on the counters, if you brought any meat into the shop, Nathan would usher you back behind the mixer and tsk at you, “no meat, no meat, strictly dairy, strictly dairy.” And he would slap his forehead and fake fear and frustration, “Oy, you shiksa, WHAT am I going to do with you goys. THIS is why I could never be Kosher!”
The truth was that Nathan could never be Kosher because he didn’t want to follow the rules of being Kosher, but knew he would draw a certain type of customer that would appreciate a good bagel, made by a Brooklyn Jew with a mezuzah strategically placed just over the food case that held the sandwich spreads and sandwich makings. One day he saw me run may hand on the mezuzah just before I tied my apron. He nodded his headed and said, “you know what that is?...you know what you just did there?”
I screwed my face and responded “I know what a mezuzah is.” He responded, “Oh yeah? What is a mezuzah, miss gentile smarty-pants, I bet you can’t even spell it.”
I said ,” If I spell it will you give me a raise?”
“Get to work.” He responded. I muttered back, “Yeah I thought so, praying for the blessing and good luck of a raise, pfft.” With that, Nathan laughed good and hard and did give me a raise, a nickel.
After a year or so, I left my position at Marion’s bagels to stay home with my kids for the summer. Nathan was not happy. When I told him I couldn’t afford a babysitter while the kids were no longer in school, he just shook his head and simply said, “You come back in September, I'll give a quarter and hour raise if you come back." But I didn’t. He sold the shop and took his mezuzah.