The Knish Hunt

The Knish Hunt - 614 eZine - Vol 6, Issue 3

A journalist goes on a quest to learn all she can about the beloved Jewish pastry.

by Laura Silver

Mrs. Stahl died long before my time, but I knew her well. The Brooklyn knish store was a family destination for over 30 years. In the 1970s and 80s, my father took half-hour detours (he called them "shortcuts") for a fix and a whiff of his youth. The Spanish-speaking woman behind the counter regaled us with hunks of frozen dough thick with kasha, spinach and mushroom, potato or cherry and sweet cheese. All of them we heated and depleted at and between meals.

In 1990, when my grandmother landed a choice apartment in senior housing in Brighton Beach, we became regulars. I was the delivery girl. Gramma’s standard order was a half-dozen kasha: one, hot, to be smeared with mustard upon my arrival, with the remainder destined for the freezer. After she died in 1997, grief kept me away. When I returned two years later, Mrs. Stahl’s Knish Headquarters was sharing space with a shwarma outfit. I was dismayed, but eager to revive my regular visits, as a way to conjure Gramma and concoct Old World affection.

Then, it was gone. For 70 years, Mrs. Stahl’s had stood on the corner of Coney Island Avenue and Brighton Beach Avenue, beneath the elevated subway. Then it became a Subway. The site of my secular pilgrimage had been converted to a Subway® sandwich shop.

That was 2005, on my father’s side.

In 2008, I landed in Bialystok, Poland, for a look at the land of my maternal forebears. I met up with my mother and four of her cousins. We were two generations, several decades removed. The four-star Hotel Branicki on Zamenhoff Street proved a more convenient meeting place than any cafe or restaurant on the isle of Manhattan, less than an hour travel time for each of us. We synchronized our bladders and piled in and out of Tomek’s Kia Carens on cue. We walked around the town, gawked at plaques and the memorial to the Great Synagogue. There were no remnants; the black bones of the dome, erected in the 1990s, sat on a triangle of grass behind some apartment buildings.

At dusk on our third night in Bialystok, my mother’s cousin Maxine remembered about the birth certificate. She had travelled from San Diego to New York, through Prague and Warsaw, with a large brown and gold duffle bag nicknamed "The Beast."

Unwieldy despite its wheels, the Beast had the heft of Jabba the Hut and the resolve of a grandmother determined to plump up far-away descendants with hand-schlepped home cooking. We had no one to feed and no one to feed us. At night we retired to the local sub shop and pizza joint. The street names had changed; the city was rebuilt without Jews.

Dusk tucked itself into Bialystok. The wall of the hotel glowed red. Tomek took the paper from Maxine and unfolded it. The beige parchment flaunted official stamps, official seals and strokes of incomprehensible fountain pen. Like Bialystok, it was linked to us, and like Bialystok, left us flummoxed. Tomek translated: In the town of Knyszyn, was born a daughter, Szjena Czapnik. So, we weren’t from Bialystok after all. Knyszyn offered a consolation and a chance to be from a place with potential traces of Jewish life and the past. The town was known as home to one of the few existing Jewish cemeteries in Poland, with graves from the 1700s. I wanted to make a break for it. The group stayed put. The sky went pink.

Szjena Czapnik was Jean Haren, née Levy, or so we thought. She was born in 1914, 20 miles northwest of where we stood. Great Aunt Jean, the youngest of the seven Levy siblings (my nana was the eldest) had died two years earlier in her ground-floor condo in Margate, Florida, at 93. I inherited the Scrabble board and two needlepoints. Maxine, her daughter, took the birth certificate.

I arrived in Knyszyn a year later, without family but flanked by a mini-entourage: Tomek, our guide from Bialystok, and Karol, a Polish Jew and new friend-cum-translator. The local historian told us of a legend that linked the knish to grieving rituals in Catholic tradition: professional mourners distributed stuffed cakes to the bereaved. That was 2009.

I went back to Poland the following year and found myself waylaid in the State Archives in Bialystok. I learned to write the Polish for death, marriage and birth, to request indexes and dossiers and file boxes. One of them contained a document I had hoped to find: My nana, Eva Farbstein née Levy was in fact born as Riva Czapnik; not in Bialystok, but in Knyszyn. That made me a direct descendant of the town, and by extension, the knish.

I took it as a sign from on high. Surely I had been singled out to go in search of the history and meaning of the huddled mass of stuffed dough.

My fascination with the knish has inspired me to write a book on the topic: part-memoir, part-history, and part-travelogue. So far, the research has taken me to the shores of Tel Aviv, the banks of the Seine, and the Land of 10,000 Lakes (Minnesota). I’ve found 1930s songs and Yiddish poems from Vilnius that pay homage to my beloved potato pockets. The best discovery to date has been the dozen women who gather to make knishes every Wednesday at the Sholom Home in St. Paul. They’ve become surrogate relatives, like Mrs. Stahl, but modern, and with midwestern accents.

About the Author

Laura SilverLaura Silver
Laura Silver has consumed knishes in four boroughs and on three continents. Her reporting on food and culture has appeared in the New York Times, on National Public Radio, WNYC, and CNN. She is a research associate at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute. The Book of Knish is forthcoming from Brandeis University Press. Read about it at www.knish.me.

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