In Search of the Jewish Soul Food
By Laura Silver
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
If you ask someone to name a Jewish delicacy, chances are matzah balls or gefilte fish will be the first items mentioned, but one of the traditional foods often found on street corners was the knish, a thin pastry usually filled with potatoes, although kasha knishes, beef knishes, and cheese knishes are variations of the food. When Laura Silver’s favorite Brooklyn knish store closed, she set about trying to find other knishes and exploring their history and cultural impact. The result is her book Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food.
I picked up this book with quite a bit of interest. Not only do the author and I coincidentally share a last name (no relation) and both enjoy knishes, we both have ancestors from the small Polish village which may have introduced the world to the knish, Knyszyn, which Silver visited during her search for the pastry’s origin.
Silver opens her book with a description of the knish, a discussion of how it fit into the world of Jewish New York throughout the twentieth century, and explores the reasons so many knish stands went out of business, although a few managed to survive. There is clearly a passion for the food that runs through Silver’s narrative, although she has a tendency to jump around in her stories about the knish. Although she clearly demonstrates its importance to her own family as well as its ubiquity in New York, she never really explains what sets the knish above the bagel, latke, blintz, hamantaschen, or other Jewish foods. Nevertheless, her book does provide an enjoyable examination of the knish.
Once Silver establishes the personal importance of the knish and laments its potential lack of future, she turns her attention to the food’s history. As mentioned above, one of the potential places for the origin of the knish is the Polish village of Knyszyn, and Silver visited the town and discussed its long Jewish history, which abruptly ended in 1942 when the Nazis killed all except for a dozen of the village’s large Jewish population. She relates a, possibly apocryphal tale of how the village was named for the Knish, rather than vice versa. She also looks at other potential birthplaces for the knish, such as Kishinev (modern Chisenau) in Moldova. Unfortunately, throughout this section of the book, Silver undercuts her own argument of the centrality of knish, pointing out that wherever she went, people were unfamiliar with the food, even when she showed them photographs she brought with her.
However, even as Silver demonstrates that a knish is hardly recognizable in the wild, she also explores the way the knish has permeated pop culture. She lists off songs about knishes, references to knishes in books and films, almost always without any explanation of what they are. The reader or viewer is either expected to know what a knish is or simply recognize it as a Jewish comfort food and accept its roles in whatever pop cultural work it appears in. Silver also describes knish eating contests, less popular than the hot dog eating contest held by Nathan’s Famous, but an event that appears to have been held multiple times.
Silver’s book is a heartfelt tribute to the knish, although it never really succeeds in its claim of the centrality of the pastry. Many of her claims come across as anecdotal and open for debate. Her love for the food does come across, however, and by page 10 I was finding myself wanted a knish. By page 100, I had ordered several knishes from my local deli, which fortunately carries three types of knishes and by the end of the book I had finished my knishes and began planning another trip to the deli to pick up some more.
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