HOLE-Y LAND BRICK LANE BEIGELS
AS A Jew living in north-west London, I love spending time in the city’s creative epicentre, which, for years, has been located over in the East End. The area is awash with the latest fashion trends worn by hipsters sporting the bushiest beards and skinniest of jeans. It’s been that way since cheap rents enticed a large artist community to colonise large studio space.
These days, affordable living is being squeezed out, but the area hasn’t lost its cool factor. Designer cocktail bars proliferate and pop-ups can be seen on every street corner preparing innovative food fusions. Yet, incredibly, two competing beigel bakeries in Brick Lane — “beigel” being the way it’s still spelt in Brick Lane — have been in existence for a combined total of 148 years, selling the same product in a similar, stripped-back environment.
Beigel Bake, the better known of the two, has an iconic status. Hungry customers arrive safe in the knowledge that they will receive a beigel so fresh it will invariably be passed across the counter still warm.
I’maphotographeranddecided to record a typical day there, taking one image to represent each of the 24 hours of the day that Beigel Bake stays open. I undertook this project with four friends for an exhibition.
The location was chosen because no place better shows off the rich diversity of life in the metropolis today. Destitute junkies rub shoulders with city gents on a Tuesday morning, Italian tourists mingle with northern hen parties on a Saturday. Sundays are for cyclists and shoppers laden with flowers from the local flower market. And any night of the week, cabbies pop in for a social and a cup of tea, as well as security guards at the dead of nightandparamedicswhentheyfind time. All are served equally by (usually) women treating each customer as equal.
One of the first portraits I took was a mother in a shiny electronic wheelchair sandwiched between a doting son and daughter. They were clutching brown paper bags of greasy salt beef beigels, the shop’s signature filling. Although the family had driven from Leytonstone, she recounted fondly how her parents had led her to the same shop regularly when they lived nearby, and that their parents had done the same before them.
The business is owned and managed by two generations of family. Brothers Asher and Sammy Cohen started after working for another brother next door, eventually branching out in 1974. When the brothers aren’t putting in a shift, one of two sons can be seen overseeing the sale and production of the 7,000 beigels that are produced inhouse every day.
Nathan, 28, is one of the sons involved in the day-to-day operation: “It used to be a big Jewish area, though not any more. Though our family isn’t religious, we think it’s important to continue the business for the sake of tradition, as we wouldn’t want the cultural aspect to die out.” And the secret of their success? “It’s simply the quality over price ratio”. At 25p for a plain bagel, and under £4 with a giant slab of meat, it’s hard to argue.
In London, it’s rare that tangible aspects of Jewish life are revered in the mainstream. But, then, where else can you be fed in an institution that never closes? The exhibition is at The Canvas, 42 Hanbury St, London, E1
Tasty: Some of Goldberg’s subjects for his unique project, outside the Beigel Bake on Brick Lane