This past year hasn’t been too good for the cradle of American Jewry, New York’s Lower East Side. The 2nd avenue Deli is closed. Starbuck’s opened. They tore the tenements town on the east side of Orchard Street on the block south of Houston, and they are building all sorts of modern luxury buildings, and they are building much too high.
So I filled in this past Sunday at Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes. I do that once a season or so. Just to remember what it was like. Back in the day when I was wholesaling their knishes, and was there all the time.
A lot of my friends did not and do not understand my love of this place. I guess it’s hard to explain. But I think I can to some extent.
The Knishery speaks to me because…
It is on the Lower East Side. It has been at its “new” location since 1910. And you can taste why.
Because secular Jews used to eat their own foods, not just on holidays, and they were good and nourishing and cheap.
Because they are baked, not fried.
Because you can still have a great lunch (soup and a knish) in Lower Manhattan for only $5.50
Because there is rarely decaf available.
Because the silverware is in a plastic holder. You can get it yourself.
Because the spinach ones are the best lunch item ever.
Because Alex, the general manager, is a modern New York Tevya, who talks of his birthplace of Berdichev to everyone who will listen.
Because Alex treats his employees well.
Because the knishery refuses to sell pizza, even though they could make a bundle doing so.
Because the dumb waiter makes tourists stare and take pictures.
Because Yonah Schimmel stares down at you from his portrait on the wall, and he is very serious and distinguished.
Because the numerous pictures on the wall are disorganized, faded, and important.
Because mustard containers are on the table, but not ketchup.
Because when it’s very, very, busy, you have to share tables.
Because customers go there to get destination information about the Historic Jewish Lower East Side.
Because Long Island Jews get upset if the knishery runs out of their favorite flavor knish by the afternoon, and claim they came into the city just for that specific knish, but then acknowledge that since they were coming to the city for that specific knish, they should have called first.
Because parents fight with their children who don’t want to eat a knish, but prefer a more American lunch, at a shiny place, and the parents tell their kids that one day they will be glad they were taken there, and one day, many years later, the children are glad they were taken there, and they come back.
Because vegetarian tourists don’t understand that the Knishery is a kosher dairy establishment and ask if the split pea soup has a “meat base.”
Because they close and sell the store for Pesach.
Because it’s real Yiddish, a proletariat Yiddish of the people that survives. It is a Yiddish not associated with the Holocaust. It is not a Yiddish that denies the State of Israel. It is a Yiddish of the Jewish masses, and not restricted to just the Hassidim or the dykes. It is the Yiddish of the street, the private sector kind, and does not necessitate a generous grant from the Kaplinkewitz Family Foundation to continue. It may walk at its own pace, but damn it, it walks on its own, and with swagger.
Because the customer is not, and has never been, always right.
Because even though some people disrespect the place, and ask “Ahhh, where’s Yonah Schimmel?” And they don’t want to have table service, and demand to sit anyway, and they think they can bully the staff, and demand ancient policies be altered for them…but many people do appreciate the place and the unique and delicious food it offers, and understand that just because it isn’t fancy doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve great respect.
Because when the arrogant owner of a knockoff laughed about the Knishery in front of a member of the General Manager’s family in the late 90’s, he found out things were going to be different now, that he was in for a fierce fight with shocking resistance from an icon and rival he thought was washed up.
Because the first of many skirmishes was on the Upper West Side over a critical account that had once upon a time been the knishery’s, and the though the knockoff fought like hell to keep it, it was a split.
Because when senior executives in national food corporations ask how many knishes are in a case, they are looked in the eye and given the round number of seventeen.
Because a new executive at a gourmet food corporation told the knishery that he hates having to deal with a business like the knishery, who makes only one product they need. But the executive still expanded the number of stores who offer Y.S. knishes. The executive left the company, but that company still sells the knishes.
Because I can’t and don’t want to imagine New York without its knishery.