Hole in my heart
Every Sunday morning from the time he was 2 until he was 12, Michael Zedek and his father would head to their Brooklyn neighborhood bagel shop. Much of his father's days were spent toiling in his auto mechanic shop, so time spent together was cherished.

Zedek remembered a noisy orderliness to the bakery. As a child, excitement grew as their order number drew closer. He could still feel the warmth inside the shop, the steam from vats of boiling bagels radiating heat.

They purchased onion rolls for breakfast and poppy seed bagels as an afternoon treat. On good weeks, Zedek earned enough money to buy a black and white cookie for himself — a thick sugar cookie glazed with a half-moon each of vanilla and chocolate icing.

"The greater fun is in remembering those encounters even more than the tastes," said Zedek, now Rabbi Michael Zedek of Edgewater's Emanuel Congregation.

We drove north on the Edens Expressway in search of those encounters — and for a decent bagel.

At Highland Park's Once Upon a Bagel, glass cases and wire baskets were filled with the familiar sesame, pumpernickel and corn-rye bagel offerings. "It smells like history," Zedek said on the exhale.

There were new flavors Zedek never encountered growing up: chocolate chip, honey-blueberry, whole wheat with oat bran. "I'm not going to stand in the way of progress," Zedek said, in a tone halfway between diplomacy and resignation. "I don't think I can stop the tide."

Zedek is 65, looks 45, going on 15. He comes straight from Woody Allen central casting. Zedek is that good sort of cliche, the funny rabbi whose volume and pitch modulate with extraordinary range. He leans in to underscore a punch line.

He's a pescatarian (a vegetarian who eats fish), so we settled for the Nova lox plate, whitefish salad, a few bialys and bagels. Zedek also insisted we order lox, eggs and onions, a taste combination from his youth now fused permanently.

His father made it so that the components blended to a dark mustard color, a homogeneous whole greater than the sum of its parts. Try as he might, Zedek has not been able to reproduce the dish.

When the food arrived (in startling time), Zedek aimed his fork at the lox, eggs and onions. He took a few thoughtful chews, then paused. The dish was as advertised, but ... it didn't taste the way he remembered.

He considered with similar reflection the onion bagel smeared with chive cream cheese. These bagels were bigger than ones from his youth. The interior was soft enough that the surface sprang back to shape even after being pressed down. Watching Zedek's eyes, you could see memories rewinding.

"Have I had a good taste experience here? The answer is yes," he said. "Is it reminiscent of the famous New York City-style bagel? No."

Left to less articulate minds, one might dismiss the experience — taste not syncing with his recollections — as a failed mission. But this was where our conversation drifted from food. Zedek can't help but view the world with a perspective that extracts life lessons from minutiae — even a bagel.

He talked about a Hebrew phrase, d'var acher, meaning "another interpretation." It says few things in life are bound to absolute truths, and thus having another interpretation is to our greater benefit. Yet when it comes to food, often we resist contrary opinions, becoming defensive when someone says our favorite restaurant is awful. We have an intense need to be validated.

Zedek is also reminded of the Hebrew word for "argument," which when deconstructed has its roots in the word chelek, meaning "a portion."

"It's this exquisite, amazing, wonderful notion that in an argument in Jewish life, I don't have a monopoly on the truth, I have a portion of the truth," Zedek said.

We dug into our whitefish salad. He thought it was over salted; I thought it was seasoned properly. We were both correct.

"… and maybe we can combine and get a bigger part of the truth," he said.