Secret of The Frozen Bagel, Revealed
by Staff | May 29, 2009 10:39 am
The tale begins in Lublin, Poland. It leads to New Haven’s Baldwin Street. And it rests on a secret recipe — old-world family values mixed with new-world ingenuity.
It’s a New Haven story. It’s a Jewish story. And it’s equally an American story.
The story is so delicious, chewy as a fresh-baked onion bagel, that it belongs in a history book.
It’s in one now.
The story — of how Harry Lender brought the bagel to America, then his offspring turned it into a national staple by freezing and mass-producing it — can be found in a book hot off the presses: Jews In New Haven Volume IX.
That’s right — the ninth volume. Greater New Haven’s Jewish Historical Society (JHS) has for years been publishing fact- and anecdote-filled books tracing the trajectory of Jews and Jewish institutions that prospered throughout the 20th century from humble origins abroad. Each new volume tastes like a honey-drizzled treat, a cause for celebration.
The society will celebrate the latest edition, which was edited by David S. Fischer and put together by 20 volunteers, with a gala luncheon at the Jewish Community Center this Sunday, May 31, at noon. Info: 392-6125. Or show up with $36.
(To purchase the book, call JHS at 392-6125 or send a $28 check, including $3 for mailing, to JHS at PO Box 3251, New Haven, CT 06515.)
Like its predecessors, Volume IX has hundreds of pages and dozens of entries.
Some are written by participants in civic groups, others by more polished or professional writers.
Some entries detail basic facts about synagogues and burial or Torah-study groups, written for posterity, the historical record. One of the chapters in the new edition deals with the “White Street shul” (pictured) the last of the early 20th century synagogue buildings to survive urban renewal and the flight of Jews west to Edgewood, Westville, and the ‘burbs. (The shul’s a church now; Hebrew lettering remains etched in the stone out front.)
Other entries tell the stories of New Haven Jews of all walks of life, from the millionaire to the humble shammes. The stories tell how they pursued their dreams, how they adapted to a diverse culture while trying to retain the best of the traditions they brought with them from close-knit European villages, and how they kept New Haven’s Jewish community together. The readers finds himself daydreaming in black and white, playing with kids or smelling the bialys baking in the old, pre-bulldozer days of Legion Avenue and Oak Street.
The standout piece in the new volume tells how the Lender family, like so many New Haven Jewish families, came here from Eastern Europe, scraped out a living through endless work and strong family bonds, then prospered. In the process, the Lenders transformed how Americans eat breakfast. They also reinvested their fortune in charitable deeds both at home and abroad.
Read the story yourself, below. You won’t forget it:
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The Lender Family of New Haven, Connecticut
By Andy Horowitz
“As a teen-ager during the mid-1940’s,” Murray Lender remembered, “I shared a bedroom in a two-family house with my brother Marvin, who is ten years younger than I. The family bagel bakery was in the backyard, which made it rather easy for brother Sam, ten years my senior, to wake me when one of the two bakers we employed had ‘over-shnapsed’ himself and not shown up for work. After filling in, I would return to bed for a few winks before going to school. Marvin was a light sleeper and his bed was only a few feet away from mine. Half asleep he would peer over at me, and I would jokingly ask the same dumb question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ Whether groggy or wide awake, Marvin invariably would answer, ‘A bagel baker.’ Marvin was really saying that he wanted to be just like his father.”
Harry Lender’s sons inherited from their father a tremendous work ethic, a fierce devotion to family and community, and a garage-turned bagel factory on New Haven’s Baldwin Street. With those three assets, the first generation of Lenders to come of age in America would accomplish extraordinary things: among them, changing the course of culinary history, driving the growth of the frozen food industry, and transforming a local ethnic specialty into an American staple. Then, when others might have retired, justifiably proud and fulfilled, the Lenders leveraged their success to invigorate the Jewish community of their hometown, catalyzing a new generation of Jewish leaders and heading the charge on a dramatic reinvention of the Jewish Community Center in New Haven.
Their efforts did not stop there. The Lenders also made their presence known on an international scale, becoming crucially important supporters of the State of Israel. Assisting Israel in its the absorption of one million Jews from the Soviet Union and Ethiopia, the Lenders’ efforts redefined world Jewry. Already a nationally known food brand synonymous with family and quality, the Lender name would come to be among the most prominent and respected in the Jewish world. “Who could have imagined,” Murray mused, “that bagels, a bagel bakery or a bagel-baking family would make such dramatic strides! If Harry Lender were alive, he would echo words said many times before and still pertinent today… ‘Only in America!’”
This essay will explore how the Lenders did it, and why. Straddling the Old and New Worlds, achieving remarkable success, and displaying a profound commitment to public service, the Lender family is exceptional. At the same time, if they have put them into action more vividly than some, the Lenders’ values are quintessentially Jewish values, familiar to anyone who has watched his or her parents animate the spirit of tikkun olam. And in their application of those values, as immigrants striving and innovating and succeeding, the Lenders represent the quintessential American story: they have lived nothing more, and nothing less, than the American Dream.
The Lenders in Poland
In the 1920’s, Lublin, Poland was a tolerable home for Jews. This city of about 300,000 people was unique because, unlike other Polish cities, in Lublin, Jews outnumbered Catholics. There was some safety in numbers, but the Jews there could never be comfortable. Unfriendly Russians would periodically come over the border to drink and harass people in Lublin. At one point, there were rumors that the marauding Poles were kidnapping Jewish children. Harry Lender, a young Jewish baker in Lublin, had an infant son and was terribly concerned. When the mob came to Harry’s bakery, Harry hid his son Hymie “in the bench where they mixed the dough. They put him in a wad of dough,” Hymie’s younger brother Sam recalled the family legend, “and when the Poles left, they took him out and he was ready to go in the oven.” It was perhaps the most dramatic instance, but certainly not the only time Harry Lender’s bakery would come to the aid of his family.
Harry Lender was born in Chelm, Poland, in 1895, the son of Chaim Ber and Leah Lender. Chaim was a religious man, a gabbai at the synagogue and, on the side, a bootlegger, selling “schnapps from under his coat.” He died young, when Harry, who was the fifth of six children, was around thirteen years old. Of “Bubba Leah,” Harry’s mother, more is known. Her grandchildren remembered her as “one in a zillion.” Leah amazed her family with her industriousness: she raised potatoes, onions, beets, and a goat to feed the family. She kept a small apple, pear, and cherry orchard in Chelm, and stayed up nights armed with a pole to guard the fruit from would-be thieves. Her grandson Hymie credits her with being “the original creator of sun-dried fruit,” for her use of any apples that fell from the trees. She worked as a chicken flicker, removing feathers from chickens as part of the koshering process, and then using the feathers for pillows—nothing, not the fallen apples or the chicken feathers, could go to waste. She worked in the mikvah, helping Jewish women with their traditional baths. She grew her own wheat, which she put to use in the bakery she leased, producing her own farfel and dough, and baking her specialty, pletzlach.
“You saw her walking down the streets, a skinny sort of a lady with always a babushka over her head and her long skirt, as they wore in those days, always trailing,” her grandson Sam recalled, “A frail little woman, but she was the strongest person I ever met.” This “very progressive, very businesslike,” woman set the tone for the generations of Lenders that followed her – particularly her son Harry.
Hard as Leah worked to provide for her family, Chelm was not flush with economic opportunity for enterprising Jews, so at a young age, Harry Lender left home and moved to Lublin, the nearest city of note. He arrived in the cold of winter. Needing a warm place to stay, Harry went to a bakery and convinced the owner to let him sleep on top of the oven, a not-uncommon practice for “vagrants and poor people.” He stayed at the bakery for some time, and while he was there, he apprenticed himself to the baker and learned the business.
Harry began to build a life for himself in Lublin. He met and married Rose Braiter in 1915, and together they opened their own bakery and started a family. Their son Hymen was born in 1917, followed by Sam in 1920, and daughter Anna in 1923. Harry and Rose worked together in their bakery, which at first occupied the majority of their house on Probostva Street in Lublin. The front of the building housed a storefront for the Lenders to sell their goods; behind it was the bakery, and behind that, in one room, was the Lender family home. Sanitary facilities were in the backyard behind the house.
The hours were long. Harry worked nights in the bakery producing rye bread, bagels, rolls, pletsl (“a piece of dough rolled out flat and sprinkled with poppy seed and onions, almost like a bialy”), challah for Shabbat and matzo for Passover. Like many women whose husbands manufactured for sale, Rose would wake up at three or four in the morning to sell the goods at the stand the Lenders rented in the tareg, or marketplace. From the time they grew old enough, the children would help too. Hymie recalled carrying baskets of bread from the bakery to the market as a young child.
The Lenders enjoyed some limited economic success with their business and, in time, were able to move out of the bakery into an apartment they rented in Lublin. Hymie and Sam attended the public Polish school and met at the rabbi’s house in the afternoons for their religious education. “Religion with Jews has always been a way of life,” Hymie asserted, “so you lived a Jewish life. You had no alternative, there was no other way.” For the boys, the family’s modest financial comfort did not guarantee social security. The apartment was across the street from a church, and Sam recalled the Polish children warning him, “Don’t go over there. The galach, the priest, he’ll take you and cut your legs off.” The Lender boys avoided that side of the street.
Though that particular worry was most likely unfounded, Sam and Hymie dealt daily with their classmates’ anti-Semitism. “We had to contend with the Polish kids,” Hymie remembered. “They would not tolerate us being around because we were dirty Jews.” Hymie recalled how Jewish children banded together for security: “A Jewish kid was never able to go to school or do anything else on his own. He had to have a group with him for protection.” Polish kids would chase the Jews with sticks, and fights were common, but Hymie was adamant about standing up for himself and his friends. “I wasn’t taking any guff from any of them; any of them did the beating, it was me that did the beating back. I happened to be big enough and crazy enough.” Often, when Hymie fought back, the Polish children would run to the church and get the feared priest. “What the hell do you Jews want here?” the priest would snarl. “And we got blamed for everything,” Hymie recalled. “In that respect, not only mine but my brother’s young years were not good years.”
Increasing anti-Semitism, coupled with decreasing economic prospects, pushed Harry and Rose to join Jews across Eastern Europe in looking to new lives in the New World. Between 1880 and 1920, over two million Jews left Eastern Europe. Harry’s older brothers Max and Charlie joined the exodus and left Poland for America in 1917. In 1927, Harry had all his teeth capped in gold – he had heard how strict the health inspectors at Ellis Island were about immigrants having good teeth – took the train from Lublin to Warsaw, and from there, left to follow his brothers to America.
In America, Harry lived with his brother Max in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and found a job at a bagel bakery in Passaic, New Jersey. At first, he worked cleaning coals from the oven in the basement, but declared, “This is nicht fur mir (not for me).” Over the course of a year, though, Harry learned the bagel business, and saw that it might be a productive way to earn a living. He decided to go out on his own. “Hunting around,”
Harry learned about a man in New Haven, Connecticut, who was looking to sell his bakery. After some research into the market—local bakers were not producing bagels and said they would buy his – Harry jumped at the opportunity. For $600, payable over a few years, Harry bought the bakery. He called it the “New York Bagel Bakery,” the name belying the fact that it was one of the first bagel bakeries opened outside of New York City. He settled in New Haven and sent for his family. Taking a train from Lublin to Warsaw, and another from Warsaw to Danzig, then a small ship through the North Sea from Danzig to Liverpool, and the larger ship Franconia from Liverpool, wracked by horrible seasickness, Rose, Hymie, Sam, and Anna Lender arrived at Pier 42 in New York on December 30, 1929. After staying overnight in New York, there would be just one more leg of the trip: the next day, the reunited family loaded into a car driven by Harry’s friend Teddy Tilinsky and drove eighty miles northeast to the Oakmere Apartments on Oak Street, New Haven, Connecticut. The Lender family had a new home, and it would prove to be a good one.
Oak Street and the Early Years in America
As the Lender family settled into their new home on Oak Street, they were in the midst of a dynamic industrial city, flush with recent arrivals like themselves. The city had more than tripled in size over the preceding half century; with over 162,000 residents, New Haven in 1930 was about as full of people as it would ever be. The new citizens came from all over Russia and Eastern Europe, Italy, and the American South. Jews in particular found a home in New Haven: from just 1,000 in 1880, the number of Jewish residents of the city grew to 3,200 in 1887, 5,500 in 1900, and then nearly quintupled to 25,000 in 1930. Nearly one in six New Haveners in 1930 was Jewish. Many of them lived on or around Oak Street.
Hymie described the Oak Street neighborhood he knew growing up as “a stepping-stone. That was where, when you came from Europe, you came…and the kids learned to speak English and the parents got a job and worked their way up a little bit and from there they moved on.” The neighborhood was full of recent immigrants. The Lenders’ apartment was upstairs from an Italian grocery store; the Russian bathhouse was around the corner. There were probably around eighty bakeries in New Haven when Harry Lender opened the New York Bagel Bakery; many of the Jewish bakeries were in the immediate vicinity of the Lenders’, including Goldman and Cohen’s, Gothlieb’s, the Bronx Bakery, Tictosky’s, and Olmer’s. Sam Lender remembered the area as “the mecca of the baking industry.”
Harry’s bakery was all of 800 square feet and, as Sam recalled, “There we did the whole business.” As Sam remembered it, “You walked in, and you saw on one wall possibly fifty bags of flour. On the right-hand side there was a kettle and an oven, and on the left-hand side there was a bench with a lot of boxes.” Bagels are unique in that they are both boiled and baked. Harry’s son Marvin described the bagel making process in those early years:
In the bakery there was a big mixer and my father and a couple of employees. Even today, flour comes in hundred-pound sacks. My father or my brother Sam used to pick up a hundred pounds of flour and dump it into the mixer, add water by hand. It was all done by hand, and not very fast. So they would mix a dough, and the dough would be put in a big trough, and it would sit for hours as it fermented. And then the bagels were made [shaped] by hand. The mixer was to the right of the door as you walked in; to the left of the door was a big wooden bench on which they took the dough from the trough and cut it up. It took two or three hours to roll the dough and cut strips of dough. And then after the bagels were shaped, they would go into wooden boxes and again sit for an hour or two hours for fermentation. This whole process, from the mixing through the shaping, up until the boiling, took a good three or four hours. The fermentation of bagels is controlled by the yeast, the temperature of the dough, and the environmental temperature. And this was an old building, so it’s not as though it could be heated or air-conditioned. In the winter, it would take hours and hours and hours for the dough to ferment.
Often, Harry and his co-workers would pass the time waiting for the shaped bagels to ferment playing pinochle or poker. When the dough was finally ready, the bagels were boiled in a large kettle, then baked in a brick oven.
Sam remembered the stench of the Oak Street bakery — the toilet never worked properly – and the extraordinary heat. It was so hot that the workers “never wore shirts, just a pair of pants. There was no air-conditioning, and between the kettle and the oven and the steam from the bakery next door, Goldman and Cohen’s, we had sweat all over everything, including the bagels.” Humble beginnings, to be sure. But of the bagels, Sam asserted, “They tasted good.” And people started to notice. Harry Lender sold his bagels wholesale to a small but increasing number of Jewish bakeries and delicatessens around New Haven.
As it had been in Poland, staffing the bakery was a family affair. “From the time we arrived,” Sam asserted, “we never knew anything else but bagel.” The boys assisted their father however they were able. Hymie was twelve and a half years old when the Lenders came to New Haven, and he worked every night in the bakery from time the family moved to Oak Street. “Look at my hands,” he said years later. “I’ve got big hands. That’s what my father saw, good working hands. He made me use them.”
Hymie attended the Webster School, and was placed in what he referred to ever after as the “dummy room” because, like his mother, father, and younger siblings, he had arrived in America without knowing a word of English. He continued on to the Truman Street School for junior high, and then spent a few years at Hillhouse High School before dropping out. “It became very hard for me to work in the bakery at night and go to school in the daytime,” Hymie remembered. “I didn’t know what side was up. I didn’t know when to sleep and when not to sleep. So it seemed like the easiest thing was to quit school.” Harry and Rose were not happy, but they needed the help. “My father’s business wasn’t the greatest business in the world. It was just a small, little bagel bakery business. As soon as one of the boys grew up a little bit, he had to work in the bakery.” Hymie recalled later with some regret all that he sacrificed for the family business in those early days. “I had not had the life of an American young man, going to proms and to dances. At the time the high school had basketball games and the dances after the game—something I couldn’t do because I had to work in the bakery. [Instead] we became bagel bakers, both my brother Sam and myself. We had to in order to get our clothing.”
Sam too participated in every aspect of the business as he grew: “First I made the bagel with a helper, then I cooked the bagel, then I baked the bagel, then I went out and delivered the bagel. Then I collected for the bagel.” Sam found, as Hymie did, that the demands of the bakery were simply too much to balance with an academic career. “I used to work day and night (the baking was done at night so the bagels were fresh in the morning) and go to school in the daytime, whatever time there was left,” Sam remembered. “I was always late for high school. I dropped out my fourth year—that was a big mistake I made.” Sam tried working in a bookkeeper’s office. He lasted less than two weeks. “I left that and I came into the bakery and never left it. I never thought of anything else.”
After four years, the Lenders had established their business well enough that expanding production was possible, even necessary. In 1934, Harry bought a two-story wooden house at 20 Baldwin Street, between Congress and Davenport Avenues. Behind it was the 1,200 square foot, former Regna’s Italian bread bakery. For the next three decades, the Lenders would thrive on Baldwin Street, as a business, as a family, and as increasingly visible members of the New Haven community.
Harry and Rose’s Family on Baldwin Street
Baldwin Street was in general a poorer area than Oak Street. It was also more ethnically diverse. “That was a mixed neighborhood,” Sam remembered. “It wasn’t mostly Jews. There were many gentile people living there. There were a lot of white people living there and a lot of black people too.” Harry’s third son Murray, who along with a sister, Helen, was born soon after the move to Baldwin Street, characterized the neighborhood as “a mini United Nations.” It was the nature of the neighborhood, and the Lenders in particular, to form bonds amidst all the diversity. “There was no such thing as not knowing everybody on the street, not saying ‘hello’ to everybody on the street,” Murray asserted. “I spent plenty of time in probably three-quarters of the homes…. It was not a matter of were you friends, it was a matter of the degree of friendship.”
Murray and his siblings acquired that sense of community from their parents. Harry and Rose seemed to exert a centripetal force over everyone they came in contact with, drawing people into an ever-expanding network of associates-turned-extended family. To get to the Baldwin Street bakery, visitors had to walk through a small alleyway along the side of the Lender home. Salesmen would come to try to sell flour or other goods to the bakery. Murray recalled how “no vendor ever went into the backyard without being lassoed by my mother to come in the house and have a cup of coffee or something…. She loved feeding people from the moment you entered the house, or even didn’t enter the house, just walked by the house in the alleyway.”
Bagels were primarily a Sunday morning food, and the Lenders sold most of their bagels Sunday mornings at local Jewish delis and bakeries. To have the bagels ready fresh, Harry Lender and his sons would stay up all night Saturday baking hundreds of dozens of bagels. Stuart Grodd, Murray’s best friend and around-the-corner neighbor, recalls how he would go to hang out and watch the spectacle of the Lenders at work – and enjoy a hot bagel fresh out of the oven – on Saturday nights. He was not alone. “This got to be a place where people would stop. People of all religions—Jewish particularly, but also Italians, Irish, they would all come in Friday or Saturday night at about ten at night.” Grodd would be just one of maybe a dozen neighbors, and their guests. “Let’s say that somebody had a friend come in from New York. They would say, ‘Hey, come on with us, we’ll take you to Lender’s for a Friday night treat.’ So it got to be sort of a sideshow of the people coming.” And, either on the way in or out of that alleyway, Grodd remembered, “They would all stop at the Lenders’ kitchen and Rosie would give them a kiss.”
Rose Lender had a thick Yiddish accent her whole life, loved to dance, dress up, and otherwise be the center of attention. Marvin, the baby of the family, born in 1941, described Rose as “a real Jewish mother. But her marketplace increased in terms of who she was being a Jewish mother to, because of the number of people that would come in and out.” Murray, who would grow to be renowned for his own social abilities, called her “the best people person I have ever met…. Milton Berle would have been introverted compared to Mom.”
Harry Lender’s style was more understated, but his magnetism and commitment to community were just as strong. Everyone who visited Harry at the bagel bakery was struck first by his physical appearance. “My father was quite short,” his daughter Helen remembered. “He would stand in front of this oven in shorts, Bermuda shorts, which came down to his ankles because he was so short.” “No one looked sillier than my father,” Marvin says. “I didn’t know he looked silly then, I thought it was supposed to be that way, but when I saw all the other fathers, nobody else was dressed like that.” But the short man in the long shorts used his position at the bakery to win over friends who were influential in the New Haven community. While Rose was “working like hell to become American and assimilate,” (though the Lender’s backyard was overflowing with fresh bagels, Marvin recalls the sandwiches his mother packed for him to bring to Troup Junior High were made with what Rose perceived to be very American white bread) the process came more naturally to her husband. “For a dozen bagels, he made friends,” Sam described. “For a dozen bagels, he found a politician or someone who wasn’t Jewish. Dr. Mongillo wasn’t, Mayor Fitzsimmons wasn’t. But they were good friends with him, the lowly little bagel baker. He used to say, ‘Sam, when you’re delivering bagels on Sunday morning, drop off a dozen at Dr. Mongillo’s house or Fitzsimmons’ house or Ralph Blumberg’s house.’” Sam and his brothers took the implicit lesson to heart as they became increasingly involved with the business. “We never strayed too far from that ourselves. So these are the things that I guess gave us respect in the community.”
But it wasn’t just influential friends that Harry Lender was interested in—he made connections with all of his diverse neighbors as well. Murray recalled how his father’s shopping habits helped make him popular on Baldwin Street:
My father loved to shop, because he was in the food business, but he didn’t know how to buy for three or four people. He only knew how to buy for thirty or forty people, mostly because he never bought retail. He never paid retail prices for anything in his life, everything was bought wholesale. So he would go to a grocery house and buy cases of juice and cases of fruit cocktail. Fruit cocktail had to be in every Jewish home, I’m not exactly sure why. Del Monte, in fact – Del Monte fruit cocktail. Now we also had fresh fruit, to a degree where we could have been in business, because he would go to the produce market once a week or once every two weeks. And you don’t go to the produce market and buy a pound of this or two pounds of that, you don’t buy four plums. You buy a crate of plums and you buy a flat of strawberries. That’s the only way they’re going to sell it to you because it’s wholesale. So when people say that ‘Jewish people like to buy wholesale,’ they say it jokingly, but in my father’s case, it went beyond being a joke. I mean, he really did it. Now the question is, what do you do with a whole flat of strawberries when you come home? Well, in this case, it was very simple—you give a basket to the Carlisimos. The Carlisimos on one side and the Greens on the other and the Abramovitzes upstairs. Sam’s got to have two or three boxes of the fruit, too.
Whatever money Harry saved by buying wholesale, he spent four or five times over by shopping for the whole block. Sometimes Rose would nudge Harry—“Herschke, you are giving away too much money,” she would say. But Harry always replied, “If I have, I’m able to share, and hungry people need it too.” On Thanksgiving, Harry would close the bakery and bake bread and rolls for New Haven’s orphanages, the nunnery on Washington Street, and the Hospital of Saint Raphael’s. All the Lender kids knew that they would spend Thanksgiving morning bagging and delivering the donations. With these seemingly small acts – a dozen bagels here, a kiss there – Harry and Rose Lender became beloved and respected across the city.
Along with, and as a part of, their charitable and community-building impulses, Harry and Rose maintained a deep-spirited devotion to Jewishness, a commitment that they imparted to their children. In Europe, Rose had kept a strictly Jewish home; in America, some of the rules were relaxed, but many traditions stayed intact. Every Friday night she would light the candles and cook gefilte fish, and then the family would go to Shabbat services. On Oak Street, the family had attended the White Street and Orchard Street shuls. After the move to Baldwin Street, the Lender family went to services around the corner, at the Jewish Home for the Aged. But “the turning point,” as Murray described it, came when the Lender family committed themselves to the congregation that had recently located in a converted church building on the corner of Chapel Street and Sherman Avenue: Keser Israel. “It became the synagogue to go to in the status ladder, right behind B’nai Jacob, and we became very active members. My father became the treasurer, my brother Sam played a very active role in it and eventually became president of the synagogue.” Marvin’s bar mitzvah at Keser Israel was, in the family’s memory at least, legendary. He led the entire service on his own.
Judaism was as much a social as a religious imperative for the Lenders. “When we went to temple, if there was anybody there who didn’t have a family, [my father] brought them home too,” Helen recalled. Harry Lender wanted non-Jews to learn what Jews “were really like,” and the Lender Passover seder always included non-Jewish friends. “My father made the holidays very special and very important,” Helen remembered. “He made Judaism very important, and it was easy to be a Jew because the holidays and traditions were so special.” In 1956 or ’57, Harry went on a mission to Israel in support of Israel Bonds. Young Marvin noticed: “It left a lasting impression on me to see how he reacted and responded to all of that.”
An important outgrowth of the Lenders’ involvement in the New Haven Jewish community was their time at what was known colloquially as “bagel beach” — the Jewish summer community at Woodmont, eight miles from Baldwin Street in Milford, Connecticut. On Baldwin Street, at the Welch and Troup and Hillhouse schools, the Lenders engaged with a resplendently diverse America, but at Woodmont, the Lenders communed almost exclusively with others Jews. “How did [the Jews] choose Woodmont?” Sam mused. “How did the Jews choose Legion Avenue or Oak Street? They just got together…. The Jews just went to Woodmont for the summer.” Everybody from the bakery business was there – “the Olmers, the Lenders, the Shmuklers, the Browns, everybody went to Woodmont.” “Woodmont was almost an extension of New Haven,” said Marvin. “Whoever hung out in New Haven together ended up going to Woodmont.”
Beginning in the late 1930s, the Lenders rented a house by the Long Island Sound at Woodmont. In 1940, the family bought a cottage two blocks from the beach. The family would go for the whole summer, sometimes staying through September and observing the High Holidays at the synagogue in Woodmont. Harry and Sam would commute to work at the bakery during the day, and Murray, Marvin, and Stuey Grodd would have fun causing trouble up and down the beach. And Rose, always the first at the beach in the morning, held court: sitting down for dinner at the long picnic table at 26 Burwell Avenue, there were often ten, twenty, even thirty members of the Lender family and their friends. “Those were just the most wonderful days of my life,” Sam recalled.
As the summers rolled by, the Lender children grew and began to establish lives of their own. Hymie, always the most independent, even rebellious of the children, caused his parents consternation when, in 1941, he married an Italian-American woman; Nikki had two children from a previous marriage. Harry and Rose “were terribly broken up over it on the one hand,” Murray recalled, but “on the other hand, they loved Nikki.” Soon after, Hymie left the family business and pursued a career as a general contractor. He and Nikki enjoyed a half-century of marriage, and he raised her children as his own. Toward the end of her life, Nikki converted to Judaism.
Sam was married a year after Hymie, to Lena, a girl he had met in the fourth grade. “I was always sort of a boss’s son, or the half of the boss, you know?” Sam described. “So my father bought the house on the other side of the house that he lived in, in front of the bakery, and we lived there in the second house for about eight, nine, ten years, or more, until we built our house.” The purchase of 18 Baldwin Street in 1953, made possible in part by a loan from Harry’s friend Louis Bat, who owned a local Kraft agency, not only allowed Sam and Lena to move next door, but also let Harry Lender connect the two garages and double the size of the bakery. It was the second in a growing series of major expansions of the New York Bagel Bakery.
With Sam’s full-time help in the bakery, Murray, Helen, and Marvin were all able to focus more on school than their brothers could. They graduated from Welch School, then Troup Junior High and Hillhouse High School. As the only girl in the family – Anna had died tragically young, in 1935, of an infection – Helen enjoyed some special privileges. She got the first floor bedroom to herself, for instance, pushing Murray and Marvin up to the attic. The third floor had heat, but no bathroom. Even with their ages a decade apart, the brothers developed an extraordinarily close bond; they often attributed their special relationship to their time on the third floor at Baldwin Street. For decades, they loved to joke about the lack of a bathroom: “My favorite part of this story,” Murray said, “is that we did not have plumbing but we had the Brockhall. Brockhall was a large dairy here in town during that era; they delivered milk to everybody’s home. And we had, instead of plumbing, a Brockhall Dairy bottle. From that point on, I’ve never drunk milk again. I’ve said that so many times, by now I really believe it.” While Helen enjoyed the comparative luxury of her own room, and a bathroom, she suffered so many older brothers: “Murray was my nemesis in life in those days,” Helen recalled. “Sam wouldn’t let me wear makeup, Murray wouldn’t let me date.”
Murray probably cautioned Helen away from boys because he had experience on the other side. “Murray was the gay blade around town,” Helen recalled. “He was considered one of the most eligible bachelors in town. All the girls used to have their claws out for him.” Murray did enjoy having girlfriends – he singled out the girls in Westville, in particular, “G-d bless them, they always had something going on” – but his real love was for the theater. Without fail, every Sunday afternoon during his sophomore, junior, and senior years at Hillhouse, Murray was at the Shubert Theater downtown, watching Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Ina Ray Hutton, Jack Teagarten, whoever was in town. He usually went by himself. He always was enthralled with a good performance. “To me,” Murray said, “it was love.”
Much younger than the rest of his siblings, Marvin grew up in an immediate family that spanned generations and continents. It was a home life, the bagel bakery aside, that distinguished him from his peers and significantly influenced his worldview. “I grew with grandparents who were my parents,” Marvin describes. “And I grew up in a home that was a bicultural home. They spoke Yiddish, trying to speak English. My mother wasn’t able to read, and she couldn’t speak English without a thick Yiddish accent.” Marvin loved playing basketball at the Jewish Community Center, the Dixwell Community House, and later at Hillhouse. (His good friend Richard Berkowitz, flashing the aggressive spirit that defined the young Jewish basketball players of those times, characterized Marvin recently as “a very intense competitor. Without a lot of skills by the way. He made up for lack of skill with great intensity”). Still, Harry only came to see his son play once. During halftime, Marvin walked over to greet his father in the stands. Harry looked down at Marvin, who was, in Harry’s words, “shvitzing like crazy,” with bewilderment. “If that’s what this is about,” Harry said, “you sweating like that, why don’t you just come with me in the bakery?!”
With Marvin’s parents rooted in Old World sensibilities, Sam and Lena in particular became like “another set of…more modern parents,” engaging Marvin in the sort of activities common to his friends’ parents, like going to the park or taking a day trip to New York. Sam’s son Michael, Marvin’s nephew, was more like a brother. Marvin was always next door in Sam’s house – sometimes too much, even, for his brother’s liking: “Marvin was a pain in the ass,” Sam laughed, “because he was in our house next door so often. If you threw him out the back door, he came in the front door. If you threw him out the front door, he came in the window.” Murray had an associate’s degree from the Junior College of Commerce (which would later become Quinnipiac), but with all the family to look out for him, and older brothers already at work in the bakery, Marvin would be the first Lender to be able to go to a four-year college. In 1959, Marvin entered Syracuse University.
With enormous pride, Harry Lender took Marvin up to start at Syracuse. Harry was sick with cancer, and he would not live to see his son graduate from college. It remains one of Marvin’s biggest disappointments. But Harry died knowing he had set Marvin and the rest of his children on a good course. When Harry Lender passed away in 1960, it was a devastating blow to the family, but he left them saturated with values of hard work, innovation, and commitment to family and community – everything the next generation of Lenders would need to achieve an astounding series of accomplishments. Sam reflected on the meaning of his father’s legacy to the children:
We conducted ourselves as elite in New Haven because as we grew in stature, we were very proud of ourselves. Even as a young kid growing up, before I got married, somehow or other I thought I was better than my friends. Possibly I shouldn’t use that term, but I had learned to be respected. My friends had learned to respect me for working nights, going to school in the daytime, and then eventually getting married and having children and doing the things that we did. Harry Lender left a legacy of respect. We earned the legacy that he left. Yes, we did, because we never went too far from what he taught us.
Murray Lender and Stuart Grodd were sitting at Frank Pepe’s pizzeria on Wooster Street in New Haven. They had spent the day hustling at the train station, selling banners and pennants to the visitors thronging into the city for the Yale football game. Murray had gotten a late start — he had worked into the early hours of that morning at the bakery — but still the two had done very well, making over a hundred dollars each from selling those souvenirs. A pizza pie and a soda were hard-earned treats. Between bites, Murray casually had a brainstorm: “You know, Stuey, if I could teach the non-Jewish world to enjoy our bagels as much as we enjoy Italian pizza… Wow—I could sell a lot of bagels.” Murray was fifteen years old, and his idea would, as Grodd characterized it a half century later, “change the breakfast eating habits of the Christian world.”
A series of innovations made while Harry Lender was still the master baker had changed the business at the New York Bagel Bakery. By the mid-1950s, the Lenders had faced an increasingly frustrating logistical problem: sales were increasing, but with the majority of bagels selling on Sunday mornings, the bakery often had relatively slow weeks, followed by a mad marathon of producing up to 6,000 bagels in twenty-four hours. But a solution was brewing: if they could figure out a way to freeze the bagels, the Lenders could produce steadily all week with no Saturday bottleneck.
The concept of freezing was claimed by and attributed to Harry, Murray, and Sam over the years. Sam recalled commandeering his home refrigerator for experiments: “Lee,” he told his wife, “your freezer is no longer for your use.” Stuart Grodd remembers it as Murray’s idea, conceived while he was “fighting the battle of the New Jersey Turnpike” during a two-year stint in the military police at Camp Kilmer; Grodd says the idea was one that Murray had to coerce his reluctant brother and father into trying during his weekends home from the service. But whatever its genesis, the plan had obvious merit and in 1954, after some small-scale trials, Harry contracted with Howard Arnold to convert part of the garage into a holding freezer.
The freezer changed the bakery dramatically. Now, the Lenders could bake, say, 600 dozen on Monday night, distribute 400 dozen, and freeze the excess for Sunday. Quickly, Harry refined the system so the bakery had a steady, six-night work week: instead of the grueling pre-Sunday rush, Saturday night was now the easiest time of the week—the Lenders just defrosted the bagels and delivered them fresh in the morning. Within two years, the Lenders perfected the workflow so that they only had to bake four or five nights a week.
The new system eased life for the Lenders but it was, in the words of one observer, a “perilous experiment.” It was also, at first, a family secret. “No one was allowed to know that these bagels were frozen!” Harry’s niece Esther remembered. Though evidently customers could not taste the difference, “everyone wanted fresh bagels.” The Lenders managed to keep their innovation quiet for almost two years. Then, one Sunday, somehow, somebody neglected to thaw the bagels, and the driver delivered them all frozen. “The customers were furious,” Murray recalled. “‘Get this junk out of here’ was the typical reaction.” Murray ultimately assuaged the bakeries’ concerns—after all, they had been selling frozen bagels for nearly two years without complaint.
Murray finished his stint in the Army in 1955 and began working at the bakery full-time. The business was not profitable enough for him to take his $50 a week salary; it would be a year before he drew any money from it, and indeed, for the next twenty-five years the Lenders’ bakery would remain dramatically under-capitalized — all profits went right back into growing the business. In the meantime, Murray and Sam instigated a series of changes and innovations to help the business. With the frozen bagel concept now public, Murray began to seek out new markets for the frozen bagels. In 1956, he struck a deal with the Concord Hotel in the Catskills: the hotel would buy the bagels frozen and prepare them to be served fresh onsite. No one had ever sold bagels that way, but the plan worked well on both ends, except for one significant catch: as the bagels thawed, they developed some moisture, which made slicing them before toasting dangerously difficult for the Concord’s workers. “I’d get calls saying, ‘We lost a piece of a finger this week, and the next week ‘We lost another little piece of a finger, and the union is starting to give us a bad time,’” Murray recalled. The solution: the Lenders would slice the bagels before freezing them.
Meanwhile, a friend of the family had suggested that the Lenders try packaging their fresh bagels in polyethylene bags. The bags extended the shelf life of a fresh bagel from one to three days. Along with their traditional deli and bakery wholesale market, the New York Bagel Bakery began selling a bag of six fresh bagels on supermarket shelves. Trouble was, as the Lenders started presenting the bagel to a majority non-Jewish consumer base, people didn’t know what to do with the “roll with a hole.” For instance, when Italian-American Camille Erba started as the Lenders’ part-time bookkeeper in 1960 (beginning what would be a three decades’ long career with the business), the first time she heard the word bagel was her first day of work in the bakery, and she had grown up barely a mile from Baldwin Street. The solution: Sam’s wife Lena and Murray’s wife Joyce manned displays in supermarkets, demonstrating to customers how to eat a bagel with spreads and so forth. Nobody had ever sold bagels that way either, but it worked. Thus, sold on the supermarket shelf, frozen, pre-sliced, and six to the polyethylene bag, the Lender’s Frozen Bagels the world would come to know and consume in massive quantities had been born.
Growth followed quickly. In 1956, Harry Lender used the garage behind Sam’s house at 18 Baldwin Street to install a rotary oven, allowing him not only to bake more bagels at once, but also obviating the need to stand many long hours directly in front of a sweltering, open oven. The New York Bagel Bakery became the first to offer different varieties of bagels, like onion or raisin-and-honey bagels; by 1959, these varieties amounted to half the company’s sales. Sam started looking for machinery to increase production. Bagel dough is exceptionally tough and quickly wears out standard equipment designed for doughnuts or other baked goods, but since no other firms sought to produce bagels on a scale like the Lenders, such machines were not easy to come by. In fact, they did not exist. But making creative adaptations, Sam began the process of moving the bakery towards automation.
When Harry Lender died in 1960, Marvin wanted to drop out of college and return home. Sam and Murray forbade it, reminding their brother of the pride their father took in Marvin’s education. When Marvin graduated in 1963, he came home again, married, now, to his college sweetheart Helaine, and eager to join the family business. At first his brothers tried to dissuade him: they wanted more for their college-educated brother, and they weren’t sure the modestly profitable business, which employed six people, could support another Lender. Marvin insisted. Over the next five years, he bought in as a full partner. Then, a few years after Marvin joined, Sam decided to retire from the business. “I think after I worked there for so many years, I had really gotten a little bit tired,” Sam reflected. “It had gotten bigger and bigger, and I found out I couldn’t be the total boss anymore…. As the business grew, I didn’t want to have to understand that you have to separate the business and give somebody else responsibilities.”
Not wanting to delegate tasks may have been one of the reasons that Sam decided to sell his share in the bakery, but when their turn at the helm came, Murray and Marvin were best friends and instinctive teammates. They were, after all, primed for good communication from their years together in the Baldwin Street attic. They quickly established a division of labor and thrived on it. “They were like two horses pulling in unison,” described Doris Zelinsky, who came to work for the Lenders as an in-house consultant in the late 1970s. Marvin became the “inside guy,” managing the operations and business end of what the brothers renamed Lender’s Bagel Bakery in 1965. That year, under Marvin’s watch, Lender’s built a plant on the Boston Post Road in West Haven. While earlier expansions – from Oak Street to Baldwin Street, then the purchase of Sam’s house next door- had been momentous, nearly doubling the size of the bakery each time, the move to West Haven was by far the most ambitious. The plant was 12,000 square feet, more than five times the size of the bakery at 18-20 Baldwin Street. It was a huge risk, and it took courage and foresight. Every penny of the bakery’s profit over the past years went into the move. Marvin had planned the bakery to be 6,000 square feet initially, with the ability to expand as the company grew. He figured they would need the additional production space in a decade. The Lender brothers had the plant operating at full capacity within a year.
With sixteen- to eighteen-hour workdays that called to mind his father’s work ethic, Marvin ultimately transformed the West Haven site into a 25,000 square foot plant, highly automated with conveyers and freezers and flour blown in from trucks to flour silos. He would travel the world in search of machines he could retrofit to make bagels. “Marvin loved tinkering,” recalled Doris Zelinsky. “I remember once we were standing in a line and he said to me, ‘If we upsize this mixer and we put a second line here and we marry them at this incline belt, we can make another 300,000 cases a year.’ I went on to have lots of engineers working for me in lots of factories, but I never had anyone who could stand in a line and do that. He just saw it all in his mind’s eye.” Marvin Lender, who had taken one course in business and none in engineering at Syracuse, invented the bagel factory. The Lender’s Bagel Bakery, which employed six people the first year in West Haven, employed 600 in 1984. By that time, Marvin Lender’s four bagel factories could produce more than 750,000,000 bagels a year.
Marvin’s dramatic operational innovations were necessary because, as the “outside guy,” Murray could sell bagels faster than anybody had ever produced them before. “When it comes to anything of a mechanical nature, tough things like screwing in light bulb, I always had and still have a problem,” Murray joked. His eyes might glaze over when he was in the factory, but Murray was a marketing genius. With a knack for dealing with people gleaned at his mother’s kitchen table, and performance instincts learned Sundays at the Shubert Theater, Murray crisscrossed the country creating the retail bagel market. And in order to do that, he was in no small measure inventing the frozen food industry. “Murray was on sort of a mission,” described Stuart Grodd. That mission, Murray liked to say, was to “bagelize America.” In the late 1960s, most Americans had never heard of a bagel and, as Murray learned from the angry calls he got when some customers found out they had been buying frozen bagels, there was a stigma against frozen foods in general. But with an intuitive sense for strategic marketing, creative incentives, and sheer charm, Murray won over consumers by the millions.
To entice neophytes to try a bagel, Murray embraced “cross-couponing” – putting coupons for cream cheese or orange juice in the Lender’s Bagel bags and vice versa. It worked. As the public tired of white bread and became more concerned about healthy foods, Murray emphasized the hearth-baked nature of Lender’s Bagels and was among the first to include nutritional information on a food package. That sold bagels too. Observing that March was the slowest month for the frozen food section of the supermarket, Murray declared March “Frozen Food Month” and induced the whole industry to follow suit—literally. The emblem for his Frozen Food Month was a penguin, and Murray traveled around the country outfitted in a penguin suit visiting supermarkets, brokers, and industry representatives, delivering a presentation about why they should offer special frozen food incentives in March. The shtick concluded with Murray dropping his suit to reveal…penguin underwear. Everybody signed on. Frozen food sales in March rose dramatically. His colleagues elected him chairman of the National Frozen Food Association and put him in the International Deli-Bakery Association’s and the Frozen Food Association’s Halls of Fame; he was named “Man of the Year” by the Frozen Food Association of New England, the National Prepared Frozen Food Association, and the Connecticut Food Stores Association.
Back when the business was still turning meager profits, Marvin trusted Murray to spend tens of thousands of dollars on advertisements on television and everywhere: Murray put posters in New York City subways with “a half-nude Italian guy with a shpalette (a hero or sub sandwich) [that] said, ‘Would it hurt to have a bagel for a change?’” Murray concocted green bagels for Saint Patrick’s Day, and an oval bagel for President Lyndon Johnson to eat, in front of television cameras, in the Oval Office. Murray appeared on The Late Show with Johnny Carson. Murray became the public image of Lender’s Bagels, his antics synonymous with the brand. For the 1983 World Economic Summit, borrowing an idea his wife Joyce had dreamed up for their son’s bar mitzvah, Murray directed Willie Evans, the bakery’s masterful art director, to create “bagel heads” – miniature, decorated bagels – in the likeness of the world leaders who would attend the meeting. “Margaret Thatcher’s was complete with pearl earrings, red lipstick and a full hair style. The bagel heads got international publicity.” Sam remembered learning that Murray had sold fifty cases of frozen bagels in Arkansas. He considered it a monumental achievement: “That’s when [I knew] we [had] crossed the ethnic line.”
Marvin’s operational prowess and Murray’s marketing savvy built Lender’s Bagels into one of the most recognizable brands in America, and put their hometown on the map: the whole country knew about Lender’s Bagels, made in New Haven, Connecticut. Earning that success also required a willingness on both of their parts to work exceedingly hard, with uncommon focus. “In 1984 we were working just as hard in terms of hours and time and effort and energy as we were in 1963 when I came into the business,” Marvin described. “And it wasn’t because of any other reason than that’s the way we work, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a million dollars a year or $65 million a year, your commitment is the same and your work ethic is the same.” After Lender’s bought Buffalo, New York’s Abel’s Bagels in 1974 – another big risk for the company that paid off – they had almost no competition. In 1984, when Lender’s sold $65 million worth of bagels, their closest competitor sold less than $1 million. But there were rumors that Sara Lee and Kraft, companies with resources that dwarfed the Lenders’, were both going to enter the bagel business. And Marvin was starting to get tired: “I told my brother, ‘They’re going to find us both lying on the floor here.’ I mean, I loved it. I thrived upon every moment of the twenty-one years I was at the bakery on a full-time basis. It was part of me. It was me. And the same thing for my brother. But I thought we could work ourselves to death. So I said let’s get out while the going is good.”
Murray was reluctant to sell the company, but acquiesced after hearing Marvin out. The two brothers might not always agree, but they always supported each other. They compromised and agreed to open a chain of bagel restaurants, which would be named H. Lender & Sons, after their father. In the spring of 1984, the brothers put the business up for sale. Kraft, led by executives who had matured in the industry with the Lender brothers, entered the highest bid. Murray orchestrated the announcement of the sale in characteristic form: Murray and Marvin escorted a life-size Lender’s Bagel – “Len” – down the aisle, where he met his new bride, “Phyl,” a Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese. They called it “the marriage of the century.” The event humanized the sale of the family business. When the paperwork was completed, Murray and Marvin became millionaires over night.The next morning they both went back to work.
“There’s No Hyphen There”
I was going to say that in many ways, the Lender family story is the Horatio Alger story, but then I thought better about that. It’s not a just rags to riches story, and it’s not just about benevolence of America—it’s more than that with them. Because although it might be bagels to bounty, it’s a story of the so-called hyphenated Jew. I think for all of the family, there’s no hyphen there. Which is to say that they give to all the civic organizations because of their commitment to what’s best about America, and they give to all the Jewish organizations because they understand Jewish identity and haven’t lost that. When I look at all of the work they have done, I’m in awe of it. It is a model for our community.
—Sydney Perry, Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven
After the Lenders sold the business, they literally went back to work the next morning – their contract with Kraft stipulated that Marvin would remain president, and Murray spokesman, of the company for two years; at the same time, the Lenders quickly set about putting their long-earned expertise and new-found economic resources to charitable use. To attempt even a list of the philanthropic contributions the Lenders have made would be an overwhelming task, but a modest review of a few extraordinary and illustrative examples demonstrates how this remarkable family put their values into action.
First of all, while their new efforts would have dramatic visibility, the Lenders’ philanthropic work after 1984 expanded on impulses learned from their parents and practiced even in the midst of running the bakery. In the mid-1970s, Marvin and Helaine moved to Orange, joining a small but growing Jewish community. (Hymie had moved there decades earlier, and often claimed to be the first Jew to live in the town.) Eager to have a formal Jewish presence there, the couple was part of a group of ten families to start a synagogue in Orange, a forebear of today’s thriving Or Shalom congregation. Marvin had been a cantor in Keser Israel’s junior congregation and seder chairman of his fraternity at Syracuse; growing up, attending services with his father had been an important part of his Jewishness. With all the accomplishments that would come later, Marvin looks back at his work in Orange with special pride. “So few people I know have ever had the opportunity and the privilege of starting a synagogue,” Marvin said. “It was a big deal.”
At the same time as he was working to establish the synagogue, Marvin got involved with Reverend Howard Nash at the Holy Infant Church., who asked him to sit on the Parish Council. He would be the only Jew, and for Marvin, that was part of the appeal: “I’ve always felt this way, that Jews have to be part of something besides the Jewish community.” His contributions to the Parish Council included helping to establish a teen drop-in center in Orange. These two volunteer activities – with the synagogue and the church – set a pattern for the rest of his civic life: Marvin would make important contributions to both the Jewish and secular communities.
In 1974, Marvin took a trip to Israel. It was his first visit to the country, and it changed his life. “In a short period of time, weeks, somehow Israel became part of me. Just like that,” Marvin recalled. “And it’s been part of my soul since 1974.” Before the trip, Marvin arranged to meet Chaim Lender, one of his older cousins who had moved to Israel when Harry Lender moved to America. Waiting in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Hilton, Marvin had to catch himself from falling off the chair when he first saw his cousin. “He looked exactly like my father,” Marvin recalled. “I thought my father was walking through the door, honest to G-d.”
In that momentary reconnection with his beloved father, Marvin personified his burgeoning sense of spiritual and political connection to Israel. The trip validated feelings Marvin had started to have in New Haven after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, listening to speakers who came to visit with the Young Leadership program he and Helaine started through the Jewish Federation. It was a sense that “we couldn’t be a Jewish people without the State of Israel, and the State of Israel couldn’t be a Jewish state without the Jewish people who live outside the State of Israel. I really see this incredible connection. The address for the Jewish community is not Brooklyn, it’s Jerusalem. That is it. And as goes Israel, in my view, so will go the Jewish people.”
Building ties between America and Israel would become Marvin’s lifelong passion. Devoting himself to it with the same missionary zeal that marked his years at the bakery, he rose through the ranks of Jewish communal work, becoming president of the New Haven Jewish Federation, then campaign chair, and from there steadily working his way through regional and national positions, ultimately serving as national president and chairman of the United Jewish Appeal from 1990 to 1992. During his time at the helm, he chaired the UJA’s “Operation Exodus,” aiding the resettlement of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Marvin led with characteristic boldness. To kick off the campaign, he gathered the wealthiest Jews in America into one room. Over an hour-long breakfast on the morning of February 8, 1990, Marvin Lender raised $58 million dollars for Operation Exodus. Over the duration of his chairmanship, he would raise nearly one billion dollars. The funds allowed half a million Jews to make aliyah to Israel. Like the bagel business before it, Marvin’s very public work brought international recognition to the New Haven community.
Still, when he reflects on his years at the UJA, Operation Exodus does not seem to be the achievement of which he is most proud. Rather, Marvin hopes people will remember him because he “wasn’t just going to go speak to the guy giving a million dollars, [I] would speak to a guy willing to give a thousand dollars. Chairmen of national campaigns don’t do that, but I did.” Marvin always valued the modest contributions made by people like his father. Likewise, though his philanthropic work has offered him close relationships with all the modern Israeli prime ministers, when Marvin reflects on his years in the Jewish Federation system, it is the people he and Helaine recruited for the first Young Leadership class in 1973 that he brags about: “Almost every one of those people have taken an active role in the Jewish community,” he boasts. “And they still are our closest friends, all of them.”
All those years in the business, Marvin had stayed, often, in the radius between his home and the bagel bakery, while Murray spent his days traveling around the country, pitching the product. Now the roles reversed: while Marvin increasingly assumed positions that pushed him onto a national and international stage, Murray focused his efforts on the New Haven community. While developing a local chain of retail bagel restaurants, Murray committed himself to the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven. He had grown up playing ping-pong and basketball at the JCC on Legion Avenue in the old neighborhood. Now he seized on the chance to give back, mustering Stuey Grodd to join him as the two co-chaired a fundraising campaign to reinvent the JCC. Along with David Beckerman, Murray and Stuey led the effort to raise nearly $18 million to buy a 50-acre plot of land in Woodbridge and build an impressive new Center building. Murray also joined the board of Quinnipiac University, the descendent of his alma mater, the Junior College of Commerce, and helped that institution reinvent itself as well, leading an impressive expansion of the school’s physical plant. Ever concerned with issues of equality, in 1988, Murray and Marvin, along with Yale professor Geoffrey Hartman, guided the founding of the Holocaust Prejudice Reduction Education Program, which offers educational programs and teacher training about tolerance, by educating them about the horrors of the Holocaust. Today, over three hundred teachers a year participate in the program.
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A good bagel, made in CT, is history. No one makes the genuine item in the entire state. I have to make my own.
Great story! Amazing how poor immigrant people were able to thrive and succeed without public assistance.
immigrants of the past found it (relatively) easier to succeed than todays immigrants because they werent going up against giant corporations to sell their goods, the early 20th century immigrants became the giant corporations. our way of life no longer revolves around the local, but the global, which means the small fry remains the small fry.
Shabbas goy—and this Latino is glad of it! I grew up on Lenders, though I have to admit my mamasita made ham sandwiches with them.
Alphonse Credenza, I agree 100%. Don’t get me started on how mediocre the CT Bagels are. Rolls with holes. I have to bake my own also.
Always nice to hear a good success story though.
I don’t think that Wal Mart is the source of immigrants falling back on government assistance so quickly. If you think that turn of the century people had it easier by only putting up with overt and institutionalized bigotry, disease, pestilence, abusive slumlords, complete lack of medical care, grinding poverty and the competition from many other skilled (read skilled) laborers pouring in every day from Ellis Island, then you really have to rethink your view of the past. It’s insulting to that generation.
in no way do i doubt that the living conditions were poor and life in general was more difficult, that is not what i was saying. but the very conditions you spoke of were what brought people together and created communities, which is what allowed a business like the lender brothers to flourish. all i was pointing out was that, in large part, these conditions no longer exist because tight-knit communities of pedestrian-based local retail was replaced with automobile infrastructe like route 34. so there is really no ideal location for the new immigrant generation to provide a service of product and flourish like immigrants of the past, since the local retailer is no longer as important as it once was.
also, thank you NHI for posting this, i found it inspiring and very interesting.
I always find entertaining the nonsense on this site about immigrants today from commenters. Which immigrants are over-using public assistance?
Immigrants are generally less likely (and in many cases entirely unable) to use public assistance than native born Americans.
Unless by public assistance you mean schools, roads and trash collection which no doubt immigrants are as likely to use as the rest of us.
Or do you mean that immigrants are more likely to use our free health care system—oh that’s right we’re the only developed nation in the world that lacks a free (or at least almost free) health care system. I should of course blame that on immigrants as opposed to blaming US voters who regularly get duped into believing that the people of Germany, France, England, Japan, the Bahamas, Canada (and on and on) have the crappiest health care in the world because its free (or nearly so).
Then you make my point that we should get back to basics and severely cut back on entitlements to help spur self reliance, success and family values. Not to mention a great way to balance the budget!
Thank you for this wonderful story. It brought me back to my childhood in the 40s when my father would take me once a week Friday night to pick up the bagels on Baldwin St. They were the best bagels.
posted by: Bruce on June 2, 2009 10:40am
I am also puzzled at the notion of immigrants “falling back on government”. Are you talking about welfare? Medical? I have known quite a few immigrants over the years (most here legally, but not all) and I don’t know of them using any government services. maybe some have children in our schools, but they also contribute to property taxes through rent and state taxes through purchases. Mostly they work hard to make money here as the free market offers better opportunities than back home—just like back in the day. As was pouinted out, any immigrants looking for free health care will be sadly disappointed.
Great story, thanks for sharing.
Thank you for this wonderful story. It brought me back to my childhood in the 40s when my father would take me once a week Friday night to pick up the bagels on Baldwin St. They were the best bagels.
“I have known quite a few immigrants over the years (most here legally, but not all) and I don’t know of them using any government services.”
We are talking about New Haven and the real world here, not La-La Land, right? Do you honestly believe that?