Being an Orthodox Jew is like belonging to a secret society. There’s no decoder ring or special handshake (mind you, the latter might be due to the restrictions on physical contact between men and women). However, there is a strong sense of camaraderie and common purpose that binds its members.
This feeling of affinity for each other manifests itself in different ways. It’s one of the main reasons why “frum” neighbourhoods and publications exist. It has also spawned the numerous chesed organizations run by Orthodox people.
The feeling of mutuality can also result in humorous situations. A few years ago, by way of illustration, my wife and I went on a kosher tour to Switzerland. While hiking one day with our group, we arrived at a scenic clearing by a lake. As we were approaching the site, we spotted a crowd of people who, based on the kippot and long skirts they were wearing, were also Orthodox.
My wife told our non-Jewish Swiss tour guide that she was about to witness an extraordinary phenomenon: although we probably didn’t know the people we happened upon, we would most likely engage with them like long-lost friends.
Sure enough, within minutes, conversations began and Jewish geography was being played. This one’s cousin had married that one’s nephew. This person’s rabbi used to teach that person’s daughter. And so on. It mattered not that our group was made up of North Americans and they were Europeans. We were all part of the secret society.
Non-Orthodox Jews are not excluded from this fellowship. Because they aren’t usually as visibly Jewish, however, some will resort to “bageling.” The word “bagel” is best known as a noun used to describe a type of food. But, as a verb, it means letting a religious person know that you are an undercover member of the tribe.
It has happened to me many times. On one occasion, I was standing in a supermarket checkout line, when a woman who had no outer-trappings of being Jewish asked me when Rosh Hashanah was going to fall that year. It could have been an innocent inquiry, but I knew she was bageling me since it was only February.
The hinting doesn’t have to be as blatant as that. You know you’re being bageled when someone unexpectedly slips an “oy,” “shlep” or “Shabbos” into the conversation with a glimmer in his or her eye. Suddenly, you are no longer strangers.
Sometimes, even a non-Jew will engage in bageling. While we were driving into the United States once, the border control agent asked us the purpose of our visit. When we told him we were going to a wedding, he asked, “Monsey, Brooklyn or Lakewood?” It was an impressive display of his familiarity with the Orthodox world.
I don’t know if he gained this knowledge on his own, or if it was part of his professional training. Either way, I wonder if he’s learned about shmaltz herring or cholent. And, of course, we declared the sandwiches we had packed for the trip – lox and cream cheese on a bagel.