Local history: Milford's 'Bagel Beach' was a summer haven for Jewish families

Certainly there are many Milford people who have heard of Bagel Beach, which was a gathering place for Jewish families on the east side of town starting in the early 1900s, much as Walnut Beach and Silver Sands were summer hot spots on the other side of town.

But there are many who don’t know the Bagel Beach history.

That may soon change with the recent publication of Elizabeth Poliner’s book ‘As Close to Us as Breathing,’ which is set at Bagel Beach in the Woodmont area. And closer to home, Chanie Wilhelm and members of the fairly new Bagel Beach Historical Association are working to preserve the Bagel Beach history.

Wilhelm, who is the wife of Rabbi Schneur Wilhelm of the Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont,  isn’t sure where the term Bagel Beach came from. Some people say there was a woman who used to distribute bagels on the beach, or perhaps it started as a derogatory term for the beach that welcomed Jewish people at a time when anti-semitism was running rampant, she speculated.

While many areas, including Morningside in Milford, expressly prohibited Jewish people with signs like “No Jews Allowed,” the area near Woodmont that became known as Bagel Beach was open and welcoming. “This was one spot without those directives,” Wilhelm said.

According to Frank Juliano in his book ‘Milford, A Brief History’, “While anti-Semitism was a shameful attitude in some other Connecticut resort areas, Woodmont did not discriminate and was welcoming to people of different faiths and ethnicities. With an open-heartedness rare in its day, Woodmont became known as a Jewish enclave for New York City residents trying to escape the summer heat. For many years Burwell Beach, just outside the borough, was known locally as ‘Bagel Beach’.”

When Poliner spoke recently in Milford about her novel ‘As Close to Us as Breathing,’ she said there are varying descriptions of what constituted Bagel Beach.

According to Wilhelm’s research, three beaches make up what people referred to as Bagel Beach: Merwin, Burwell and Farview beaches.

The area is technically outside the Borough of Woodmont borders, according to Wilhelm and Dr. David S. Fischer, author of the book Jews in New Haven. He says Bagel Beach usually refers to Merwin Beach, “a public beach with as much as 90 feet of sand extending from the mean tide high water in some areas.”.

In addition to providing a geographical description of Bagel Beach, Fischer’s book provides a glimpse at the people who gathered there. He writes in his book, “Whenever I am at a Jewish party, meeting, bar/bat mitzvah, or wedding in the Greater New Haven area and mention that I live in Woodmont, invariably someone approaches me with a great big smile and says, ‘I remember Woodmont in the good old days.’ Let me tell you about those wonderful summers.’ The stories usually include phrases like ‘a veritable paradise,’ or ‘a summer playground,’ or ‘Bagel Beach was heavenly with so many beautiful Jewish girls and handsome Jewish boys covering the beach so that you could hardly see the sand’.”
Bagel Beach history
According to Fischer’s book, Jews first came to the Milford beaches after World War I in 1919 and 1920. In his book, he credits the trolley line that ran from New Haven to Woodmont, and the sandy shores that could be found in Milford, with drawing summer visitors.

And of course there were the welcoming people in the Woodmont area. While anti-semitism was close by, “Those who owned land or cottages or houses in Woodmont were willing to rent or sell to the Jews,” he writes.

“While many resorts in other areas had signs reading, ‘No Dogs or Jews allowed,’ we know of no such reports in the Woodmont area,” according to his book.

The 1930s and 1940s were prime times for Bagel Beach, when families from New York and towns that surround Milford would flock there for a summer of beach and family time.

“It was a place where worries would not exist,” Wilhelm said.

When people reminisce, “there’s almost this wistful look in their eyes,” she added.
The trolley stop
Although Bagel Beach was not actually in Woodmont, the families that came called it Woodmont in part because visitors got off at the Woodmont trolley stop and then walked to their nearby cottages and summer homes, according to the Bagel Beach Historical Association website.

The website contains stories from people who spent their youth at the beach, stories that Wilhelm has compiled, much as a group of authors collected stories from Walnut and Myrtle beaches and produced the local history book ‘Sand in Our Shoes’ around 2004.

This reflection on the Bagel Beach Historical Association website comes from Leslie Hecht Eudowe:

“From infancy I was visiting family on Hillside Avenue. My greatest memory of that time was walking across the street in my water shoes with my grandma and my tante in their black bathing suits to go take a ‘dunk’ in the water.”

From Francine Rogers: “I, too, spent every summer in Woodmont, at 36 Merwin Avenue, since I was about six years old. That was in 1952. My NY friends stayed in Parsky's Hotel on the Long Island Sound … Those were the best memories of my life as well.”

Dr. Peter Aaronson’s recollection goes like this: “My brothers Dr. Arthur Aaronson and Dr. Robert Aaronson and I spent all our summers at the house on Chapel Street and spent our time swimming at the Anchor and Horse Shoe Beach, climbing on tank rock, fishing, and boating.”

Aaronson tells of family and extended family that gathered together, “wonderful and memorable times.”

Marvin Cohen’s reflection speaks of his trips to the beach during the war years: “I would have enough money fortunately to rent a locker and get a sandwich at Sloppy Joe's. I met many of my friends from school there during the War years.” Cohen met the woman who would become his wife at Anchor Beach.
Preserving history
The stories and photos on the Bagel Beach website are part of a Hebrew Congregation of Woodmont project to preserve the history. Once the synagogue, destroyed by fire in 2012, is rebuilt, there will be a separate space for the museum. The committee aims to fill the museum with historical documents, memorabilia, photographs and stories from the people who summered here.

Wilhelm says the history of the synagogue and Bagel Beach are intertwined.

In a video produced for their historic archives, Dr. Fischer explains that people began to talk about building a meeting hall, and by 1926 they had enough money. Land was made available and the synagogue was built in the 1930s.

In the video, Sonia Goldberg talks about the Sunday school class she attended at the synagogue, recalling stars on the ceiling and a chopping bowl the teacher gave everyone for a special performance. She still had her bowl, and it will become one item in the museum’s collection.

Ina Furst-Fischer recalls that her parents came here in the early 1930s, and lived across from the schul, another name for the synagogue. Her father was very involved in the synagogue: On Saturday mornings he would stand outside to get a minyan, the quorum of 10 Jewish adults required for worship, she says in the video.

According to the Bagel Beach website, “the ‘mini museum’ will serve as a guardian of that which many hearts hold precious, and will help enlighten those who seek to understand the beauty, charm, and allure that Woodmont’s Bagel Beach inspired in every soul which inhabited her land.

For more on the history of Bagel Beach, go to Bagelbeach.com.