It was a treat reserved for me and my Dad.
We lived in Queens, New York and I felt very special when Dad put me in the front passenger seat and drove to the lower east side of Manhattan. First, we sat on red swivel stools at a long shiny Luncheonette counter. The server squirted cherry syrup into a glass and filled it with coca cola. He called it a cherry coke.
We walked down Houston Street. Men passed in long dark coats and bushy beards. Women raced by in “modest” clothes. In between there were moderns dressed in stylish jeans. The air rang with rapid-fire Yiddish. I never understood the language – it was what my parents used when they didn’t want me to know what they were saying.
Finally, we arrived.
What’s a knish and who was Yonah Schimmel?
Some call a knish Jewish comfort food; others say Jewish soul food. I think of it as a mouth-watering pastry made in heaven.
The classic knish is a ball of mashed potatoes or kasha (buckwheat groats) mixed with onion, seasonings, and wrapped in paper-thin dough. The round-shaped are egg-washed and baked to a golden brown; the square ones are deep fried.
Knishes came to America at the turn-of-the-century when Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews fled deadly antisemitism. Yonah Schimmel, a young immigrant from Romania, arrived in New York around 1890. He started peddling hand-made knishes from a push cart (see the push cart market below).
The business grew. Yonah and his cousin, Joseph Berger, rented a small store on Houston Street and called it Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery. It was a first.
A few years later Yonah left the business and Berger took over. He kept the name but moved to 137 Houston Street – the very spot my Dad took me!
Today it’s still family-run, owned by Yonah’s great nephew, Alex Wolfman, and his daughter, Ellen Anistratov (who hopes that one of her three sons will eventually take over).
“This bakery,” Ryan Cashman wrote, “brought knish into the mainstream, providing the poor, working-class immigrants with a healthy, affordable meal.” Other knisheries popped up like Mrs. Stahl’s in Brooklyn, and Shatzkin’s in Coney Island.
Yonah Schimmel is the last one standing – in the same place over 100 years later; the oldest knishery in the country.
What was life like in those days? The average US wage was 22 cents an hour or $200-$400 a year. Only 6% graduated high school, eggs cost 14 cents a dozen, and the life expectancy was 48-51 years.
The lower east side teemed with immigrants, especially from Eastern European countries like Austria-Hungry (Poland after WW I), Russia, Lithuania, Romania, and Ukraine. Many were fleeing murderous pogroms and persecution. They were looking for a better life. Slowly, after hard work, the immigrants found that life and many moved their families to less crowded suburbs. Jewish stores and businesses closed down . . . and Yonah Schimmel’s adapted. It appeared in print, on TV, and movies. Celebrities like Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Streisand, and Woody Allen stopped by.
Today it sells a variety of knishes, from the classic (potato or kasha) to cabbage and cherry cheese. You can also get your fix of matzoh ball soup, potato latkes, and cherry lime rickeys. Business is booming (along with takeout) and knishes are sold nationally through Goldbelly.
Where did it begin? Laura Silver, in her book, Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food, was determined to find out. Using interviews, historical records, and legends, she traced the knish back to the middle ages. One legend (below) came from her ancestral home.
Men arrived on horseback, exhausted and hungry, at a small Polish hamlet on the edge of a forest. The women rushed to provide food, including a “dumpling served on horseradish leaves.” Later, the king returned, built his manor house there, and called the town Knyszyn.
“From that day forward,” Silver wrote, “people asked, ‘where does one eat knishes?’ The answer was in Knyszyn.”
These days you can find different knish flavors from mushroom and jalapeno to mini cocktail size and pizza. They’re in delis, local restaurants, frozen, street vendors, or shipped by Gabila’s. You can even get them gluten-free!
What are you waiting for? If you never ate a knish – or haven’t had one in years – it’s time to stop the drought.
You can eat like a king!