In Search of the Jewish Soul Food
Brandeis University Press
2014, pp. 275, $24.95
by Gloria Levitas
Reader alert: I am not now nor have I ever been a knish enthusiast. I find most knishes too doughy, too heavy and much too filling. So I approached this attractive volume warily. Why eat knishes when you can feast on similar delights like bourekas or blintzes or samosas? But like them or not, I was curious about knishes, remembering a long-ago encounter while driving through the English countryside. My husband and I stopped for a snack at a small roadside shop in Cornwall that offered a variety of local pastries neatly displayed in a glass case. I pointed to a dough-covered item. “You want a Cornish, Miss?” asked the clerk, pronouncing “Cornish” as “k’nish.” I glanced around in amazement: Was this a Jewish shop? Clearly it wasn’t, but the little pastry, filled with potato, seemed knish-like, if a bit lighter. Could the knish have originated in Cornwall? The idea was amusing, though clearly absurd and not totally wrong—as I learned from Laura Silver’s delightful, thoroughly researched volume. The Cornish pasty is, indeed, a kissing cousin of the knish.
Silver is an exuberant fan of knishes. She has eaten and enjoyed them all her life, but more important than their role in her diet was their link to her beloved grandmother, a clue to her family history and a culinary introduction to political and cultural curiosities. These range from the fact that this Yiddish dish is virtually unknown in Israel to a misunderstanding concerning a 1942 delivery of a box full of knishes to Eleanor Roosevelt from an eager New York baker.
Once ubiquitous in New York, by the late l990s the knish was almost extinct. Most well-known knisheries are gone, and with them the days when New York Jews argued passionately over which was the best. Brooklynites might favor the Ur-knish—Mrs. Stahl’s in Brighton Beach, Shatzkins in Coney Island or Hirsch’s in Canarsie. Manhattan fans split their votes between Yonah Schimmel and Mrs. Schwebel, while Ruby’s Knishes were sold from a truck in the Bronx. Today you can find them in Zabar’s and a few lesser-known kosher delis, and the ovens still glow in Gabila’s bakery. Silver, who wanted to know what had happened to the knish, began her quest in Brooklyn with Mrs. Stahl’s bakery, then moved on through the city and its environs to other purveyors—surprisingly, not all of them Jewish. A single explanation is impossible. Times changed, immigration from Eastern Europe declined, diets evolved as Jews assimilated to American ways and familiar foods gave way to trendier dishes.
Undaunted, Silver turns her attention to the origin of the knish—stopping in Tel Aviv and Paris, Finland and Minnesota and ultimately in Poland in the town of Knyszyn, her grandmother’s birthplace. There, a linguistic connection seemed to provide the answer: The knish must have been named after the town. Wrong again: The town may have gotten its name from the knish! As the author delves more deeply into culinary history, she finds a number of Polish towns with names similar to Knyszyn and learns of another ancient dish, kisanin, a bread stuffed with fillings made of oil, honey, toasted wheat and sesame seeds.
Did the knish begin as a stuffed bread? Or a dumpling? Another dead end—although all these foods use dough stuffed with whatever seems to inspire the cook.
Knishes in different shapes and sizes were stuffed with ingredients as varied as those who made them—from plain potato to kasha, mushrooms or vegetables. Jews filled knishes with brisket for a hearty meal and filled others with sweet cheeses for dessert. Silver is surprised to learn of non-Jewish knishes stuffed with pork, shrimp and lard-enriched vegetable fillings. Ukrainian Christians fashioned and consumed such pastries for Lent and at funerary rites. A kernel of doubt nags at her conviction that the knish really is a Jewish dish. Although the author admits to having eaten knishes to commemorate her beloved Nana, in general, she suggests, Jews associate the knish with happier occasions.
Silver’s search for biblical origins takes her to the Talmud and Aramaic texts in which she notes the frequent usage of the letters K-N-S (think Knesset, which means to come together or assemble). Did the name come from Aramaic? Another dead end. With history so blurred, she forges ahead to explore the role of the knish in popular culture. The result is delicious and unexpected.
Isaac Bashevis Singer described the knish as “the stuff of longing,” a description that aptly summarizes Silver’s relationship to the dish. Like so many traditional foods, it is a key to a rich and complex history—the Eastern European equivalent of Marcel Proust’s madeleine in Remembrance of Things Past, evoking memories and revealing religious and quotidian associations, proverbs, rhymes and myths.
A recipe for Mrs. Stahl’s iconic potato knish, a short list of contemporary purveyors, exhaustive notes, a scattering of photographs and an impressive bibliography offer a rich source for readers to learn more. The knish may not have yielded all its secrets, but, as the book gracefully demonstrates, it’s not the destination but the journey that counts. And a lively, informative journey it is.
Gloria Levitas is an anthropologist and author who also has written on food and culture, psychology and literature, and has edited a collection of American Indian poetry.