Coney Island Bialys & Bagels sits at the center of a storied district that once teemed with Jews. But after 91 years, the oldest bialy bakery in Brooklyn is calling it quits, having fallen victim to the economic downturn and the changing demographics of its neighborhood.
“I’m heartbroken,” said Steven Ross, the bakery’s 51-year-old proprietor and baker. “It’s been four generations, including my son.”
Ross’s bialy bakery, located on Coney Island Avenue, has watched its natural, old-line Jewish clientele dwindle as Asian, Russian and Middle Eastern residents have moved in. Traditional customers, such as husbands coming in on Sundays to pick up bagels, cream cheese and juice for their families, have vanished.
As of August 12, Ross was down to himself and two employees. He does not know whether the store will shutter before or after the High Holy Days, which begin in September. Scraping off the flour on the side of a mixer, Ross said, “Right now, I’m going day by day.”
Members of the Jewish culinary community have already started mourning. “It puts a lump in my throat,” said Cara de Silva, author of the 1966 book “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women of Terezin.” She described Coney Island Bialys & Bagels as “one of the sacred spaces of New York.”
This season has not been kind to well-established bakers. Earlier this summer, the iconic New York shop H&H Bagels, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, closed.
Two other well-established bialy bakers continue in New York City, and one has long fought with Coney Island Bialys & Bagels for the title of oldest bialy bakery in all the five boroughs. Kossar’s Bialys, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, calls itself the “oldest bialy bakery in the United States” on its website, though it claims to have been in business only 65 years. Mimi Sheraton’s 2000 work, “The Bialy Eaters: The Story of a Bread and a Lost World,” generously stretches the store’s lineage back somewhat further, stating that Morris Kossar began to work for his eventual partner, Isadore Mirsky, in 1927 — still seven years later than when Coney Island Bialys & Bagels opened.
Another Brooklyn bialy bakery, Bagels by Bell/B&S Bialy, opened its doors in 1947 and is still in business.
Ross’s store got off to an early start. Morris Rosenzweig, Ross’s grandfather, hailed from Bialystok in northeast Poland, the town from which bialys (baked savory bread that has a depression in the middle and is sprinkled with onions) got their name. Ross said his grandfather began selling bialys with his brothers in Brooklyn in 1920. They ran a strictly wholesale business in which the bread was baked in a basement. The company moved a couple times and added retail sales in the mid-1950s.
In the 1970s, Ross’s father, Donald Ross, saw the eventual trend of people asking for bagels, so he entrusted his brother-in-law to learn how to make them.
Over the years, the business stayed in the family. At age 8, the young Ross was sweeping floors and packing bialys into plastic bags to go to supermarkets. At about 11, he had graduated to working the counter. “I had to stand on a milk case to run the cash register,” he recalled.
Like his father, Ross stayed with the business. And in 2001 he took a star turn: He was invited by the Smithsonian to prepare bagels and bialys on the National Mall, in Washington, as part of an annual festival.
Jewish life and culture is imbued with bread. The spectrum goes from the coarse and heavy black bread of survival to the sacred challah on the Sabbath, said Jane Ziegelman, author of 2010’s “97 Orchard Street: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement.” Bagels and bialys, she said, lie somewhere in between. Still, as Jewish culinary historian Eve Jochnowitz noted, “The question arises to why has the bagel crossed over to every aspect of Jewish life, while the bialy has not.”
It is not a question that has preoccupied Ross, who has spent much of his life making both, without prejudice, and has found people eager to eat them. The most important ingredient in making a good bagel or bialy, or any kind of bread, Ross says, is New York City water, which he uses in a surprising way. He adds ice to the dough of both bagels and bialys during the summer, which keeps the moisture in the dough, producing a softer, better tasting product.
Bialys can be eaten in a number of ways, and Ross has improvised a few of them over the years. On one recent night he even used two bialys for hamburger buns. “Lightly toasted,” he said.
Contact Gary Shapiro at email@example.com