Monday, August 11, 2014

Knish — A Delicious Book

Knish, by Laura Silver, Brandeis University Press.

Full disclosure: I have never eaten a knish.

“Does it mention Mrs. Stahl’s’?” was my mother-in-law’s first question when I told my her that I had read Laura Silver’s Knish. Yes, it’s a major topic of the book. “What about Yonah Schimmel?” That too. As with Ms. Silver, knishes evoke memories for my mother-in-law.

I certainly understand the nostalgia that can connect to certain foods. There are foods that bring me back to my childhood, it’s just that the knish isn’t one of theme. Thanks to Laura Silver, I can understand my mother-in-law’s reaction.

As a huge coincidence, this book arrived at my door while I was off in New York City. My steps took me on several occasions within an easy walk to Schimmel’s. Had I read this book before this trip to New York, I undoubtably would have made it a stop on my travels. Next time.

In Knish, Silver gives the not only her personal history with knishes, but puts them into the larger context of the immigrant experience of New York City. Mrs. Stahl’s was a Brighton Beach establishment, but Yonah Schimmel’s was an establishment on the Lower East Side (somewhat ironically, on my most recent trip to New York, I was in the Lower East Side several times, getting a couple blocks from Yonah Schimmel’s, though it wouldn’t have meant anything to me then). And she goes further.

Silver takes us not only back in time, but far away from New York, since the knish, she notes, “like those who consumed it, was of European extraction.” She did not make it to Chişinău, the site of the 1903 Kishinev pogrom, and she notes:
“Pogrom,” I have learned, is not necessarily part of the common parlance. The first time I discovered someone for whom the term was new, we were equally taken aback: she by the long trail of anti-Semitism that preceded the Holocaust, and I by the fact that she hadn’t heard of it.
I had a similar experience recently. I had Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, and noticed that there was only the slightest reference to gay victims of the Holocaust. When I discussed this with an Israeli, she was shocked to find that when the camps were liberated, some gay men were sent to civil prisons on the rationale that homosexuality was against the law in Germany. One of the shocking parts of mankind’s own inhumanity is how easily it is forgotten.

But I’m supposed to be talking about Knish here, although I think it’s a mark of a good book (let me cut to the chase and say that Knish is very good book) that it makes you think of all sorts of things in a new context. Silver is able to to juggle everything from the Holocaust to the suburban diaspora of assimilated American Jews. And it is that assimilation that seems to be dooming the knish.
Near the end of the book, Silver tells that a businessman has bought the rights to the Mrs. Stahl’s name and has created a Mrs. Stahl’s knishes Facebook page. It’s sad and somewhat telling that the page hasn’t been updated since December 2012.

I promise that the next time I am in New York City (and the trip is already planned) I will take myself to a place that makes and serves knishes. Maybe I can make a small contribution to ensuring that the knish will persist.
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