To knish or not to knish?
Believe it or not, I’ve never eaten a knish. Woe is me and my sheltered life!
My dear knish, how I long to wrap my lips around your flaky- dough-wrapped mashed potato and fried onion goodness! I was born to love you, as I do all dumplings. I know I’ve dallied with your knishin’ cousins in the past — Cornish pasties, empanadas, samosas, calzone — but you are the only one featured in a brand new picture book, a spirited, savory story that clearly shows why you are worth “fighting” for. How I dream of strolling into a kosher bakery and snatching you up!
The Knish War on Rivington Street by Joanne Oppenheim and Jon Davis (Albert Whitman, 2017) takes us to NYC’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century.
When Benny and his family came to America, his mama baked delicious knishes, round dumplings filled with kasha, cheese, or potatoes, which his papa sold from a pushcart. Soon they were able to open a little store, a knishery, the first of its kind on Rivington Street.
Everyone loved Molly’s knishes, quite a “tasty bargain” at 5 cents each! All was well until the Tisch family opened their knishery right across the street. Mrs. Tisch’s knishes were fried and square, and what’s more, they were advertised as being “Famous” and priced at only 4 cents each.
Well, Papa wasn’t going to let anyone put them out of business. He made a new sign for the shop window, touting Molly’s knishes as “the only real and original” ones, and lowered his price to 4 cents.
When the Tisches lowered their price to only 3 cents each, it was all out war. Benny and Solly Tisch paraded up and down Rivington Street with their placards. Papa began handing out raffle coupons with every purchased knish. Naturally Mr. Tisch did the same.
They stepped things up with music. When Papa bought a player piano, Mr. Tisch bought a new Victrola. They lowered their prices again. There were so many customers Papa expanded the shop to twice its size, and hired an oompah-pah band to celebrate. Mr. Tisch made his knishery “even bigger and fancier, and for the grand opening, he hired an all-ladies orchestra.”
More and more customers flocked to Rivington Street. The neighbors began to complain about all the noise and mayhem. But Papa was more determined than ever. He told Benny to give out free samples. Of course the Tisches followed suit. Would this battle of knishes ever end?
One day police cars drove up and out stepped the Mayor. He wanted to know what all the fuss was about. Benny and Solly confirmed that it was all about knishes.
The Mayor decided to settle the fight once and for all by tasting the knishes to decide which ones were best — Molly’s round baked knishes, or Mrs. Tisch’s square fried ones.
Everyone held their breath as the Mayor sampled the different varieties, round and square, potato, kasha, cheese. Finally, he threw up his hands and declared, “It’s impossible!” It was like choosing between the sun and the moon — neither was better, both were needed. And so it was with knishes — the city was certainly big enough to have more than one knishery, and both families could continue to make a living this way.
The Mayor asked them to try each other’s knishes, and they agreed — though they weren’t quite the same, both kinds were good. The Mayor then declared Rivington Street “The Knish Capital of the World.”
Everyone likes a good competition, and Oppenheim’s lively storytelling will hook readers from page one. Jon Davis has populated Rivington Street with amiable characters donning period garb, and he effectively captures the buzz and bustle of the neighborhood with its spirit of earnest entrepreneurship.
Keen eyes will enjoy reading Oppenheim’s clever rhyming signage:
WE LIVE BY
NO OTHER KNISHES
TASTE THE SAME
DO YOURSELF A FAVOR.
Taking pride in one’s work, participating in a healthy competition, and realizing that sometimes there doesn’t necessarily have to be a “best,” but instead, more than one kind of “good thing,” are inspiring themes for young readers to chew on, and gives this tasty slice of historical fiction contemporary relevance. Competition is good because it gives the consumer choices, as it accommodates personal preferences and keeps prices affordable.
So, was there really a knish war on Rivington Street? As Oppenheim explains in her Author’s Note, she was inspired to write this story by a 1916 New York Times article, describing two rival knisheries on Rivington Street. Max Green claimed to have invented the knish and opened his shop before Mr. London’s across the street. The two competed with coupons, but the article didn’t say how or if the competition between businesses was resolved.
Max Green didn’t really invent the knish — no one knows for sure who did. But we do know that knishes were brought to this country by Eastern European Jewish immigrants from countries such as Poland, Russia, and the Ukraine. Traditional varieties were filled with potato and onion, kasha (buckwheat groats), cheese, chicken livers, and mushrooms.
Today there are both sweet and savory knishes, round and baked, square and fried, and filled with almost anything you can imagine — ground beef, broccoli, sweet potato, sauerkraut, tofu, fruit, and spinach. They also vary in size — from substantial tummy fillers to hors d’oeuvre-size minis, and they’re sold by street vendors in urban areas, Jewish delis, bakeries, and some supermarkets.
If you’re a native New Yorker, you probably know all about Yonah Schimmel’s on East Houston Street ( same location since 1910). Like Papa in Oppenheim’s story, Mr. Schimmel (a Romanian immigrant) first sold his knishes from a pushcart before opening his own knishery. Yonah Schimmel’s is still a family-run business, a landmark bakery and restaurant that celebrates the rich Eastern European immigrant heritage of the Lower East Side.
One day soon I hope to taste an authentic homemade knish, but meanwhile, let’s drool over these samples from Yonah Schimmel’s:
Mmmmmm . . . my kingdom for a knish!
THE KNISH WAR ON RIVINGTON STREET
written by Joanne Oppenheim
illustrated by Jon Davis
published by Albert Whitman, August 2017
Picture Book for ages 4-8, 32 pp.
*Includes Author’s Note and Recipes for Baked and Fried Potato Knishes
♥ Visit Joanne Oppenheim’s Official Website (includes a great Q&A about the book, as well as several interesting blog posts with knish backstories).
♥ Check out the Activity Guide at the publisher’s website (scroll down to Activities and Resources).
📗 SPECIAL BOOK GIVEAWAY! 📕
The publisher has generously provided a copy of the book for one lucky Alphabet Soup reader. For a chance to win, simply leave a comment at this post no later than midnight (EDT) Tuesday, October 17, 2017. You may also enter by sending an email with KNISH in the subject line to: readermail (at) jamakimrattigan (dot) com. Giveaway open to U.S. residents only, please. Good Luck!
*Interior spreads posted by permission of the publisher, text copyright © 2017 Joanne Oppenheim, illustrations © 2017 Jon Davis, published by Albert Whitman & Co. All rights reserved.
**Copyright © 2017 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.