Knish: In Search of the Jew­ish Soul Food

By – May 12, 2014

The knish is an icon of Ashke­naz­ic Jew­ish cui­sine. These delec­table buns filled with pota­toes, kasha, spinach, and oth­er tasty stuff­in­gs delight the taste buds and thick­en the waist­line. When the author’s favorite knish shop, Mrs. Stahl’s in Brighton Beach, Brook­lyn, closed, Lau­ra Sil­ver embarked on a quest to track down the ori­gin of this won­der­ful pas­try. Her trip took her from Brook­lyn to an Ital­ian pas­ta mak­er in New Jer­sey and across the world.

In this culi­nary biog­ra­phy, Sil­ver finds her fam­i­ly roots in Knyszyn, Poland and dis­cov­ers a group of Min­neso­ta seniors who make knish­es every week to sell as a fundrais­er. Along the way she finds plays, raps, and fes­ti­vals that hon­or the knish. She also pro­vides read­ers with a recipe and a direc­to­ry of knish stores in the Unit­ed States. She even tracks down Mrs. Stahl’s grand­daugh­ters and makes knish­es with them. Read­ers will enjoy her sto­ries of knish­es past and present. Who knew that the Baby­lo­nia Tal­mud men­tions kisanin, a type of roast­ed wheat that can be used to stuff bread? Were there knish­es in the ancient Holy Land? Sil­ver pro­vides exten­sive notes for those who wish to pur­sue fur­ther research. Read­ers inter­est­ed in culi­nary his­to­ry and lovers of Jew­ish food will enjoy this book!

Bar­bara M. Bibel is a librar­i­an at the Oak­land Pub­lic Library in Oak­land, CA; and at Con­gre­ga­tion Netiv­ot Shalom, Berke­ley, CA.

Discussion Questions

1. One ral­ly­ing cry the author encoun­ters over and over again is You can’t get a good knish any­more.” When peo­ple say that, what else are they talk­ing about? What does the knish encom­pass — for the author, for oth­ers and for you? 

2. What rea­sons did Les Green, the last own­er of Mrs. Stahl’s, give for the clos­ing of the knish shop? What would you have done in his place? What’s the longest-stand­ing neigh­bor­hood busi­ness you know of? Talk about mom and pop shops that you know and have known. 

3. The author writes that some of the Amer­i­can rel­a­tives she meets up with in Bia­lystok have not seen each oth­er in thir­ty years — because some live in New York and oth­ers live in New Jer­sey. What are some of the sen­ti­ments behind the humor? To what extent, if at all, do you iden­ti­fy with the author’s quip? 

4. When the author calls up for­mer knish mak­ers to inter­view them, she some­times finds her­self on the receiv­ing end of ques­tions about her­self. Would this hap­pen with any food investigation? 

5. To whom does the knish belong? Is it pos­si­ble to link a food to a sin­gle place, time or eth­nic iden­ti­ty? Give exam­ples of oth­er foods from your past or present. 

6. What makes the author go to Knyszyn, Poland? Why does she hope to dis­cov­er there? What role does the town of Knyszyn play in the nar­ra­tive of the sto­ry? And in the his­to­ry of the knish and in the his­to­ry of the author’s fam­i­ly? What does the author learn about the past – and the present — from her this visit? 

7. The Muse­um of the His­to­ry of Pol­ish Jews opened to the pub­lic in Octo­ber 2014 on the site of the for­mer War­saw Ghet­to, oppo­site a mon­u­ment com­mem­o­rat­ing the War­saw Ghet­to Upris­ing of 1943 and with­in walk­ing dis­tance of where the author par­tic­i­pat­ed in the Singer Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Fes­ti­val in 2009. How does this muse­um relate to the sto­ry of the knish, if at all? 

8. Mate­r­i­al cul­ture is a grow­ing field and one based on objects that tell sto­ries, evoke mem­o­ries of time and place and often become the stuff of exhi­bi­tions at muse­ums and beyond. Of the items men­tioned or allud­ed to in the book, which would you like to see or inter­act with? What objects are impor­tant in your own fam­i­ly and cir­cle of friends? And which of them are relat­ed to food and cooking? 

9. Have you ever tried to trace your own fam­i­ly his­to­ry? If so, what were you look­ing for and what did you find? Do any secrets remain unan­swered? How do you feel about them? 

10. What foods or recipes hold res­o­nance for you? What makes them spe­cial? Dis­cuss the foods, ingre­di­ents and the mem­o­ries they evoke. 

11. Which indi­vid­u­als from the books stand out for you the most? Why? What else would you like to know about them? 

12. Of all the jour­neys chron­i­cled in this book, which stuck with you? Dis­cuss your own quest(s). What did you set out in search of and what did you uncover? 

13. The author states that a knish renais­sance is immi­nent. What evi­dence does she have? Do you agree or dis­agree and why? What do you think is the future of the knish – and how does it relate to the future of the Jew­ish people? 

14. Ear­ly in her research the author received a grant from the Hadas­sah Bran­deis Insti­tute, a fem­i­nist think tank. Which sto­ries in the book evoke women’s pow­er and prowess for you? To what extent, if at all, is the knish a fem­i­nist or woman-pos­i­tive foodstuff?