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Muslim Men Rescue Bagel Shop And Keep It Kosher

Jan 24, 2012
Originally published on January 25, 2012 12:22 pm

Coney Island Bialys and Bagels claims to be the oldest bialy bakery in New York City. Founded in 1920, it's faced hard economic times and changing neighborhood demographics.

Now, the shop has been rescued by two Pakistani Muslims — and they're keeping it kosher.

Coney Island Bialys and Bagels makes everything by hand, the old-fashioned way. Zafaryab Ali, who worked in the bakery for 11 years before leaving to drive a cab, now runs the shop, along with his partner Peerzada Shah. He gives an abbreviated bagel tour of all the regular flavors: plain, poppy, onion, egg, salt, onion, garlic, and so on.

It's a small store, being slowly renovated, in a rundown area on Coney Island Avenue. But the customers know what they like.

Jeanie Wittson, who works in a nearby store, wants her bagel scooped out with a little butter.

"I love their bialys and I like their fleigels," she says. "That is a flat bagel. They are not as doughy."

Today she's getting a cranberry bagel with a little butter.

A Family Affair

The store was founded by Morris Rosenzweig, who came from Bialystock, Poland, at the turn of the 20th century, where bialys originated.

Bialys usually have an indentation in the middle, but it's not a hole like a bagel, and they often have some onions in the middle or other flavoring.

At one point the bakery did so much business, it was open 24 hours a day on the weekends. Later, the store was run by his son Donald Ross, and then by Steve Ross, Rosenzweig's grandson, now in his 50s.

Ross remembers, "By the time I was 10, 11 years old, I was working the cash register, had to stand on a milk case. By 12, 13 years old, I was making bialys. By 16, I was rolling bagels. So I worked literally [from] the bottom up."

Ross also worked as a firefighter until he was injured on the job. He's had three surgeries and couldn't easily commute from New Jersey to take care of the shop. Also, the neighborhood changed.

Ross says many of the traditional customers moved to the suburbs. He tried to sell the business, but there were no buyers.

When Ali heard about it, Ross asked him, so you want to take it over? Ali decided to try.

Keeping It Kosher

Shah, Ali and Ross say that not much has changed. They are using the same ingredients, from the same suppliers.

"I gave them all the phone numbers," says Ross. "If you need this. this is who you are going to get it from, and they stayed with all that."

For the bagels, that means high-gluten flour, brown sugar and liquid malt. It means making them by hand, not by machine, and boiling them, not steaming them, before they are baked.

As for keeping the bakery kosher, Ali says, "Kosher and halal is very, very close, like brother and sister, maybe twins."

Ali and Shah say the only thing remaining is official kosher supervision and certification. They are looking for a rabbi to bless and supervise.

Ross, Shah and Ali talk to each other at least several times a week. They all say business is picking up.

And when people look askance at the idea of Muslims running a kosher Jewish bakery, Ross says, "They were reliable, I taught them everything, they always showed up, there was never any argument. I wish them well."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Finally, this hour, a story of a bakery started by Jewish immigrants and rescued by Pakistani Muslim immigrants. Coney Island Bialys & Bagels claims to be the oldest bialy bakery in New York City. It was founded in 1920, but it's faced hard times and changing demographics. As NPR's Margot Adler reports, the bakery is still alive and still kosher.

MARGOT ADLER, BYLINE: Coney Island Bialys & Bagels makes everything by hand the old-fashioned way. Zafaryab Ali, who worked in the bakery for 11 years before leaving to drive a cab and now runs the shop along with his partner Peerzada Shah, gives me the abbreviated bagel tour.

Cinnamon raisin, plain bagel, sesame, poppy - I have - onion, pumpernickel, rye bagel...

It's a small store being slowly renovated in a kind of rundown area on Coney Island Avenue. But the customers know what they like.

JEANIE WITTSON: Scoop out the dough on both sides with a little butter.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Got it.

ADLER: Jeanie Wittson works in a nearby store.

WITTSON: I love their bialys, and I like their flagels.

ADLER: What are these?

WITTSON: That is a flat bagel. They're not as doughy.

ADLER: And today, you're getting what?

WITTSON: I'm getting cranberry with a little butter.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLER: The store was founded by Morris Rosenzweig, who came from Bialystock at the turn of the century, where bialys originated. Bialys usually have an indentation in the middle, but it's not a hole like a bagel, and often some onions in the middle or other flavoring. At one point, the bakery did so much business, it was open 24 hours a day on the weekends. Later, the store was run by his son and then by Steve Ross, his grandson, now in his 50s.

STEVE ROSS: By the time I was 10, 11 years old, I was working the cash register. I had to stand on a milk case. By 12, 13 years old, I was, you know, making bialys. By 16, I was rolling bagels. You know, so I worked literally the bottom up.

Ross also worked as a firefighter until he got injured on the job. He's had three surgeries. He couldn't easily commute from New Jersey to take care of the shop. Also, the neighborhood changed. Ross says many of the traditional customers moved to the suburbs. He tried to sell the business; there were no buyers. And when Ali heard about it, Ross asked him, want to take it over?

ZAFARYAB ALI: And then we take charge, and then I say, OK, we'll try, you know?

ADLER: Shah and Ross say not much has changed.

PEERZADA SHAH: I'm using same recipe, same ingredients from same suppliers.

ROSS: I gave them all the phone numbers. If you need, you know, this, this is who you're going to get it from, and they stayed with all that.

ADLER: For the bagels, that means high-gluten flour, brown sugar, liquid malt, making them by hand, not by machine, boiling them, not steaming them before they are baked. As for keeping the bakery kosher...

Kosher and halal is very, very close, like brother and sister...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADLER: ...maybe twin, you know?

Ali and Shah say the only thing remaining is official kosher supervision and certification.

Very soon, we go to bring rabbi for blessing.

SHAH: I'm looking for that.

ADLER: Ross, Shah and Ali talk to each other at least several times a week. They all say business is picking up. And when people look askance at the idea of Muslims running a kosher Jewish bakery, Ross has this response.

ROSS: They were reliable. I taught them everything. There was never any argument. I wish them well.

ADLER: Truthfully, I didn't want to believe these bagels were any better than those at my local deli which are half the price. But the verdict after buying a dozen and bringing them back to the office? My deli lost. Margot Adler, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.