In discussions of traditional Eastern European Jewish food, the knish is often an afterthought. To begin with, it’s rarely a meal, usually a snack. Secondly, in most old-time Jewish delis, it was always one of the lowest-priced items on the menu, along with hot dogs. Third, many people are only aware of the plebian “Coney Island” square potato knish that is sold by street vendors.
However, real knish fans know that knishes come in many varieties — potato, kasha, spinach, meat, sweet potato, cherry cheese, you name it. All of these knishes could be found at Mrs. Stahl’s Knishes, the legendary emporium under the el train in Brighton Beach.
Laura Silver, author of “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food,” was a devotee of Mrs. Stahl’s. After it closed, she began the research and legwork that culminated in her book. She gave a talk based on the book, along with a slide show, at the Brooklyn Heights Branch of the Brooklyn Public Library on Tuesday evening, sponsored by the Friends of the Brooklyn Heights Branch Library.
Silver, who lives in Park Slope, began her talk by asking whether there were any “knish virgins,” who had never sampled the delicacy, in the house. There was only one in the mainly middle-aged crowd.
She then showed slides of several famed knisheries of yesteryear — Mrs. Stahl’s itself, Shatzkin’s on the Coney Island Boardwalk; Hirsch’s, also on the boardwalk; the pushcart of “Ruby the Knish Man,” who made the rounds of both Brooklyn and the Catskills for years, and more.
She also showed us a photo of Yonah Schimmel’s on the Lower East Side, which dates back to 1980 and still exists. Another Lower East Side knish-maker, Gussie Schweibel, whose bakery is long gone, once tried to deliver some of her knishes to then-First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Silver told her audience. However, the crowd outside Roosevelt’s mansion grew so huge that her security detail had to turn the delivery men away.
Silver, who is considered the world’s leading expert on the knish, describes how her quest took her to other lands as well. She showed a photo of Café Batya in Tel Aviv, which serves a knish with fried potato paste on the outside and meat on the inside. But perhaps the highlight of her travels was a trip to Knyszyn (pronounced “Knishin”) in Poland, where she has family ties. The locals, she says, know of the knish, and eat it as a tradition on the “Day of the Dead,” or All Saints Day, on Nov. 1.
Silver also went into the knish’s depiction in popular culture. One episode of “Welcome Back Kotter” revealed Gabriel Kotter to be addicted to knishes, while an episode of the 1980s sitcom “The Golden Girls” focuses on two of the characters opening a knish-and-pizza stand on the beach. Isaac Bashevis Singer, she added, once wrote a short story about the knish. And while Silver didn’t mention Henry Roth’s risqué “pretzel-and-knish” joke from his classic novel “Call It Sleep,” it’s there in her book.
Silver’s talk at the library was very well received and was followed by an unusual “wine and knish” reception featuring potato, kasha and spinach knishes. “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food” is published by Brandeis University Press.