Tracing the humble roots of the knish through its Lower East Side heyday and slow decline.
Forget pizza, bagels and burgers: in turn-of-the-20th-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 are dedicated to making 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.”
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 bourekas, 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 ITAL, 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’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 “The Underground Gourmet” 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, 2289 Broadway, on Thursday, May 15, at 7 p.m.
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