05/12/14
Jewish Week Online Columnist
New Book Traces Knish History

Journalist Laura Silver's "Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food" charts the snack's rise and fall.

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The knish's history. Laura Silver
The knish's history. Laura Silver

Forget pizza, bagels and burgers: in turn-of-the-century New York City, only one snack ruled the streets: the knish.

In January 1916, a New York Times headline proclaimed: “Rivington St. Sees War: Rival Restaurant Men Cut Prices on the Succulent Knish.” The article chronicled a time when the Lower East Side was saturated with shops hawking the potato-filled dough pocket. Though today only a handful of eateries in New York sell the once-ubiquitous street food, the knish remains a touchstone cultural icon of Jewish New York, a topic Laura Silver explores in her new book “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.”

Silver, a native Brooklynite and award-wining journalist, traveled the globe on the hunt for knish history, visiting Poland, France, Israel as well as closer-to-home San Francisco and St. Paul. A trek to Coney Island yields a rich description of a knish-eating contest.

Knishes held a special place in Silver’s heart all her life, as a favorite family tradition, and the treat she would bring to her grandmother every other week from her favorite haunt: Mrs. Stahl’s in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn.

“We harbored them in our freezer,” writes Silver. “We ushered them to the toaster oven and moved magazines and newspapers to welcome them to the Saturday afternoon table.”

Mrs. Stahl on Brighton Beach Avenue, around the corner from her store. Courtesy of Toby Engelberg

In 2005, eight years after her grandmother’s death, Silver returned to the eatery, hoping to reconnect with her memories (and chow down on a piping hot kasha knish). To her dismay, she discovered Mrs. Stahl’s had closed, replaced by a Subway sandwich shop.

“I wanted to tear my sweatshirt in grief, sit shiva and notify the survivors,” she writes. “I needed to mourn with the greater knish community.”

Instead, she set out on a decade-long search for knish history, tracing its path from the snack’s humble beginnings to its widespread availability.

“When I started out writing a book about the knish, I thought it was really going to be a book about the knish,” Silver told The Jewish Week. What emerged, though, was an intensely personal tale about her journey around the globe, as she uncovered both family history and centuries of knish connections.

“I found myself a big crusader, a protector of the history of the food, this cultural icon,” she said. “The more I searched, the more I found that knish history is in fact my history, and I could even say our history…It’s the thread that links Jews of Eastern European background, Ashkenazi Jews. It’s a focal point, a way to look at Jewish history and one that led me to all sorts of places and texts and different times periods.”

In Israel, Silver hunted through trays and trays of the omnipresent burekas, finding no knishes, which remained only in the memories of octogenarians.

“I love it and I haven’t eaten it for years,” some told her; “Why don’t they make it anymore?” others queried; “It didn’t catch on in Israel because it is a lot of work,” a few explained.

In Paris, Silver found very few knishes, but she did locate a Yiddish linguist who linked the Russian word knish to the Aramaic word for synagogue. But while tracing her family roots in Poland, Silver hit the mother lode, so to speak, uncovering a familial link to a town known as Knyszyn.

“It wasn't until I went to Poland in 2008—when my family was looking for our roots in Bialystok—that I found we actually had roots in a town called Knyszyn,” Silver recalled. “That's when I thought it was really fate, or bashert, for me to pursue this as a full-length book project.”

The town, Silver explained, has a legend about the knish.

“I like to say that I'm a direct descendant of the knish on both sides,” she joked.

Silver en route to Knyszyn. Courtesy of Laura Silver

Silver’s research also dug up the degree to which the knish became an integral part of the New York foodscape during its heyday.

“No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face,” Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder wrote in their inaugural New York Magazine column “Underground Eats” in 1968. Eleanor Roosevelt made campaign stops at Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes, it’s said, and then-NYPD commissioner Teddy Roosevelt chowed down on kasha knishes during late-night patrols at the end of the 19th century. The knish was name-dropped in primetime sitcoms including “The Goldbergs,” “Welcome Back Kotter” and “The Golden Girls.” Knishes even hit the silver screen in 1968’s “The Night They Raided Minsky’s.” 

While knishes have faded from the public consciousness, and many of the most popular New York knisheries have closed, Silver maintains that the potato pies are still around, and still beloved by many.

“I think the myopia of the average New Yorker would think the knish doesn't exist much beyond the New York area, which is not true,” she said. “I found knishes in Minnesota, I found women who bake knishes in Little Rock, Arkansas, in Texas, you name it.”

After all her hunting and researching, Silver has produced a book dripping with nostalgia and brimming with kitschy language, a work that will resonate with anyone who has ever taken a bite of a piping-hot potato knish. A heavy load of knish puns and Yiddishisms sometimes veers into cutesy territory, but her vivid imagery nonetheless brings the knish and its history to life.

“A knish is rarely just a knish, please remember this,” Silver said. “A knish embodies experience over the centuries. In Aramaic, there is the word knish; there's a link between the word knish and Beit Knesset [synagogue], this sense of gathering. The whole process of writing the book was in fact gathering stories, gathering memories, gathering places, gathering people and bringing them together to pay homage to this food.”

Laura Silver will read from “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food” at the Upper West Side Barnes and Noble store this Thursday, May 15, at 7 p.m. 

Last Update:

09/15/2014 - 15:03

Comments

I grew up in Forest Hills, New York. At the Knish Nosh, I would stop to buy their liver knishes. They were the best and the only ones to make liver knishes. After stopping there one day, I had to return them as they were rancid. I bought them again a few weeks and the same thing happened. When I stopped there a few months later, they had discontinued making liver. What a disappointment.

I'VE ENJOYED ALL THE GREAT KNISHES EVER MADE BUT ONE THAT STANDS OUT IS THE KNISH AND ROOT BEER FOR 10 CENTS AT LEVY'S ON ESSEX ST. ON THE LOWER EAST SIDE..AM STILL PURSUING GREAT KNISHES

I remember vividly buying the most delicious knishes at Yonah Shimmel on Houston St, NYC lower east side as a kid.

Crusty-shelled potato and onion knishes were a habit of ritualized character at Gorelick's deli on New Lots
Ave in East New York, Brooklyn, 70 years ago. If someone can get me access to a facsimile in the San Francisco Bay area, please respond.

The knishes sold from the Sholom Home are actually pretty good. The ones in the Kosher food section at Byerly's in St. Louis Park are bland but passable. If you want a good knish you have to make them yourself with schmaltz and onions fried in the schmaltz then mixed into mashed potato with lots of salt, enough so that your ankles swell and lots of pepper. For the dough, that's another story.

I have been out of N Y for over 40 years. I go back frequently to. Visit. I'm a former Brooklynnite. I lived off Coney Island Ave. we loved Mrs Stahl's and was disappointed when it was no longer there . I love potato, kasha and cabbage knishes. Then one day I found out they opened in Los Angeles. I went there many times, but sadly after a few years they too closed . The truth of the matter is, is that u can't replace your childhood memories and that's all they r. Memories. No one even knows how to make egg creams anymore.

I miss knishes. Can still get some at Knish Nosh on Queens Blvd.

We manufacture Potato Knishes packed 40/4 oz. 10 LB. Under the Meal Mart Label. www.mealmart.com

We sell thousands of cases to Kosher Distributors across the country. We do not sell to the public. They are resold in Kosher Restaurants, Take Out Food Stores, Supermarkets and Delis.

When I was a kid I had a knish (and hot dog) every Tuesday at our local kosher deli. What memories. My brother and I would fight over which were better, the square doughy ones or the round ones with the thin skin. I'll take either!

Can you purchase knishes in Minnesota? Where?

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