Bittersweet bagel story gives audiences something to chew on

Proprietor of Montreal’s famed Fairmount Bagel bakery is sleeper star of short film on century-old family business

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Fairmount Bagel owner Irwin Shlafman in 'Bagels in the Blood.' (Wire Walker Studios)
Fairmount Bagel owner Irwin Shlafman in 'Bagels in the Blood.' (Wire Walker Studios)

People can be picky about their bagels. Some like New York bagels best. Others are partial to the signature sweeter, denser Montreal bagels.

Filmmakers Jonathan Keijser and Daniel Beresh developed their taste for these bagels, which are boiled in honey-water and baked in a wood-fired oven, as students at McGill University. Having grown up in Halifax and Edmonton, respectively, this was first exposure to Montreal’s uniquely delicious Jewish rolls with holes (which incidentally, are larger than the holes in NY bagels).

It was not unusual for Keijser and Beresh to make midnight runs to the legendary Fairmount Bagel bakery in Mile End, the neighborhood once home to large numbers of Jewish immigrants.

No longer living in Montreal and now missing their favorite sesame bagels, Keijser and Beresh recently decided to go back and make a very short film about bagel making at Fairmount Bagel.

Filmmaker Jonathan Keijser (Courtesy)
Filmmaker Jonathan Keijser (Courtesy)

What started out as a food-focused passion project ended up as “Bagels in the Blood,” a surprisingly touching 5-minute visual tale about family dynamics. Thanks to the insights it imparts, the quiet, little film has racked up thousands of views online and attracted unexpected media attention.

The film’s emotional punch is delivered by Irwin Shlafman, the third-generation owner of Fairmount Bagels. The mild-mannered Shlafman turns fierce when he speaks about his dedication to making bagels exactly the way his grandfather Isadore did almost a century ago when he opened the bakery after arriving as a Jewish refugee from Russia.

Shlafman recounts how when he joined the family business at 23, he was perceived as a threat to the older workers.

“I didn’t like the energy. They didn’t like me there, because I was full of fire. I was the new guy in here, but I wasn’t joining the club. I was going to remake the club,” he says.

To make that happen, Shlafman had to arrive at the bagel shop before everyone else arrived, and stay after everyone left. Consequently, he ended up sleeping above the bakery.

Filmmaker Daniel Beresh (Courtesy)
Filmmaker Daniel Beresh (Courtesy)

Although the filmmakers had never met Shlafman, he was decidedly forthcoming during the single afternoon the filming took place. Intentionally or not, Shlafman revealed some of the heartbreaking hardships in carrying on a small family business.

“Being in a family business, you’re always under the watchful eye of the founder, and you can never do anything that is going to award a pat on the back, but you can always do something that will award a kick in the butt,” he says in the film.

“I asked my father about that once, and he said, ‘If you’re doing something right, I don’t need to tell you, because you’re doing it right. But if you’re doing it wrong, you’re going to damage the business — so that’s when I need to tell you,'” Shlafman adds as he gazes up at an old photo of his father Jack working in the bakery.

Beresh believes the film’s viewers are connecting with its emotional core, the revelation of the personal struggles that have gone into making Fairmount a successful bagel bakery and Montreal institution (many would say rivalled only by the nearby St. Viateur Bagel, which has been around for half a century).

“It’s an intriguing family story,” he told The Times of Israel.

After the pair graduated from film school at the University of Southern California, Kaijser and Beresh decided to start Wire Walker Studios to make socially-conscious media — everything from shorts to long-form documentaries to fictional features.

The filmmakers believe that “Bagels in the Blood” is completely in line with their mission to tell stories about the world around us, and to make a social impact while doing so.

“We believe in small businesses. And this film also represents culture and tradition, which are also things we are interested in,” Keijser says.

‘You can never do anything that is going to award a pat on the back, but you can always do something that will award a kick in the butt’

Keijser and Beresh were particularly struck by Shlafman’s persistence in upholding tradition, while growing the family business into the future.

This kind of attitude might seem obvious from the film’s more upbeat scenes, like when Shlafman is seen greeting customers and passing around samples as they wait in a long line stretching out the door.

However, it’s when Shlafman speaks about the lack of appreciation shown to him by his father that his sense of responsibility toward his family’s legacy seems most remarkable.

“I felt, I think, at some level that there would be some sort of acknowledgement from my father… I got a thumbs up once. That was it,” Shlafman says.

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