BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Laura Silver has eaten more knishes just in the past few years than most of us will consume in a lifetime. But even she, who might legitimately be described as the world’s greatest knish expert, hadn’t seen this one before: a “pizza knish.” It featured tomato sauce and mozzarella melted over a sliced-open spinach-and-potato knish.
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“This is like knish parmesan,” she said, surveying the cheese-blanketed concoction at Amnon’s Kosher Pizza and Falafel, in Borough Park. “It’s a little weird,” she added after gingerly slicing off a bite and tasting it from a plastic fork. “This is definitely not my grandmother’s knish.”
And if anyone would know, it would be the “knish-curious” Silver.
Silver has travelled all of knishdom in search of the new, the old, the odd and the unusual. And she has seen just about every possible filling put inside the dough wrapper that pretty much defines a knish, from classic potato or kasha to newfangled pumpkin and chocolate-hazelnut.
A knish is always something stuffed inside a dough envelope and the result is usually baked, though some are fried. They may be round or square. It is the Ashkenazi iteration of a kubbeh, you might say, or the Jews’ pierogie.
Growing up, the iconic Mrs. Stahl’s knishes shop in Brighton Beach “was my dad’s knish shop. We would go together. Knishes were just a de facto presence in my life,” she says.
Later, when visiting her grandmother, Silver would always stop by Mrs. Stahl’s under the elevated subway tracks. She continued to visit the store from time to time after her grandmother died in 1997: “I’d still go to Mrs. Stahl’s as a way to pay homage to my grandmother. It felt more heimishe than going to the cemetery.”
When Mrs. Stahl’s closed in 2005 and was converted into a Subway sandwich shop, she felt crushed, Silver says. Then in what Silver felt was a near-sacrilegious conclusion to the saga, Mrs. Stahl’s recipe was sold to an Italian. That prompted Silver to write an article about knishes for a local Brooklyn weekly.
The great knish exodus
Meanwhile, in 2006 Gabila’s, a maker of square knishes known to New York City hotdog cart devotees across Manhattan, moved its plant from Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to Copaigue, Long Island.
Times were changing, Silver says. “It was a knish exodus.”
She herself had a peripatetic career, traversing jobs from teaching French to working at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan, working as a writer for the New York Jewish federation and in outreach services for the Partnership for the Homeless.
When Silver went to Bialystock, Poland, to explore her grandmother’s family history, she made a startling discovery: Her progenitors were actually from a town about 16 miles north. A town named Knyszyn, pronounced "Knishin." “That’s when I said okay, this is a sign from on high,” said Silver, taking another delicate bite of her pizza knish.
In Knyszyn she learned that the first Polish mention of a knish was in 17th century literature, and that the knish - not considered a Jewish food at the time - was distributed to mourners by professional weepers and wailers.
Back in this century, the humble stuffed dumpling is getting a newfound respect, Silver feels, which is bringing her opportunities that gefilte fish experts could only envy. For instance she’s getting invited to artsy festivals. Earlier this month she participated in "Asylum: International Jewish Artist Retreat," run by Six Points Fellowship, a pilot project of ROI Community, aimed at allowing emerging artists to "connect, learn about creative ideas, deepen relationships and affect change."
Anticipating keen public interest, next year Silver will be publishing "Book of Knish”, published by Brandeis University Press of New England. Her Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign in advance of the tome raised more than $5,000 for research and features a video of Silver dancing around in a yellow knish costume.
It is, she said over her pizza knish at Amnon’s, “the definitive biography of the knish” and will include a tour of “important personalities in knish history.”
Featured will be interviews with Mrs. Stahl’s grandchildren, and with descendants of Gussie Schwebel, who died in the 1960s after decades of knish making on the Lower East Side.
Knishmaker to the stars
Gussie Schwebel was “knishmaker to the stars,” Silver says, preparing them for celebrities of her era from Leo Tolstoy to Enrico Caruso to Eleanor Roosevelt, who once placed an order for 300 of the doughy delights at once.
Schwebel had her own restaurant, a rarity for a woman at the time. A 1945 article in the St. Petersburg Times needed to explain how knish is pronounced — “like a sneeze” — and quoted Schwebel saying that knishes are the key to world peace. For “men of all nations…their stomachs will be filled and their conflicting aspirations put at ease. How can you be suspicious of a nation that turns out food so succulent it fills your soul with ecstasy?”
Today, though, a good knish is hard to find.
Hershey’s on New Utrecht Avenue, Jerry’s Knishes in Far Rockaway, or Shatzkin’s knishes on the Coney Island boardwalk are gone, but their memory lives in online urban foodie resource Chowhound.
You can still buy a Gabila’s knish from most any hotdog vendor on a New York City street corner. And Yonah Schimmel’s, dubbed America’s first retail knishery, remains on East Houston Street, in the same dingy storefront it has occupied for more than 100 years.
Knishes may not be quite what they once were, but they maintain a cultural resonance. Silver has uncovered about a dozen songs featuring references to knishes, from Cab Calloway’s 1947 “Everybody Eats When They Come to My House,” to rapper SD3’s 2008 paean to the bar mitzvah, “One Potato, Two Potato, Three Knish.”
Someone in Brooklyn not long ago began crafting artisanal knishes, touting flavors like pumpkin and butternut squash.
According to Silver, ever the knish loyalist, the classic Jewish food “is poised for a comeback.”
And it’s no wonder that interest in knishes has as much staying power as the feeling of satiety after eating one. After all, Silver says, “Once you really drill down into the knish, it’s surprising how much is there.”