Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food

Brandeis University Press  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!

Related content:

Read Laura Silver's Visiting Scribe Posts

The Knish as an Instrument of Social Justice

A Guide for the Perplexed Knish-o-phile

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?



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