Letter from the Knishery

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.

17 thoughts on “Letter from the Knishery

  1. It’s sad to see NY being torn down – be it the LES or the old buildings in Yorkville. All for what? Ugly, bland new high rises? Us natives need to put up a fight. NY’s history is one of its most important resources.

  2. I used to live on Clinton Street between Rivington and Stanton. The smell of Streit’s Matzo would wake me up every morning. It was wonderful. I would journey over to Yonah’s rather often. It never changed, and that is why it is great to me. It is hard to explain. The sit like rocks in your belly. But, when you are poor and young and…. well… it was heaven. You could eat for nothing back then. Hit Yonah’s for a few knish’s, then over to the Essex Street Market for some pickles and some fruit and vegetables.
    Back when I lived there (the Jurassic 80’s), the lower east between Delancy and Houston east of Mott was the wild wild west. Let’s put it this way- it was pretty rare for any of my friends to come visit me. I lived in a clean, renovated fifth floor walkup. It was all artists in the building. (I moved out because the landlord had a problem ensuring that there was heat, or hot water or electricity in the building four out of seven days a week. It was just too much after awhile. SPend a winter without heat most days, or hot water… you start to look for a new place to live.) But, still no one came to vist. Moslty because it was an area of bombed out buildings, junkies and crazy artists like me.
    Ratner’s was nearby too and it was like an oasis in a desert of crime and grime. Katz’s too. Yonah’s was the same. That stretch of Delancy and that stretch of Houston were downright nasty for a good many years. Most people walked on the north side of Houston, for that stretch of Houston from Bowery to Clinton was not a fun walk. Especially along the park and down to Allen. But, there stood Shimmel’s all alone, junkies hanging out nearby, trying to skin a little change from some young kid in for a knish, then take his change and try to scare up a taste of brown over in Roosevelt Park. Muggings were a real hazard and came fast and furious. I was never mugged, but a few tried. It was how it was. I don’t miss that part of the lower east.
    To me, Yonah’s was a light in that darkness. It really was… it was a bit of civilization amid the sheer ugliness. And, I can tell you, it got pretty damn ugly in those parts for awhile there.
    So, I make the journey down to Yonah’s for a knish, or Bialys and bagels from Kossar’s, and a sandwich at Katz’s pretty regularly. (2nd Ave Deli was also good, but you could never find a table at dinner. Alas. And, Katz’s was my hood.)
    I don’t know what to think of the lower east changes. I’ve seen what some of those buildings were like. They were near condemnable condition. I mean, I lived on Clinton Street, and every summer ack then, there would be a big friggin’ party on someones roof. And, it would go from roof to roof. And, you’d hang out in people apartments. A lot of people squatted back then. And, some of those places were just a total wreck. Not savable at all. The place had seen literally generations come and go. That takes a toll.
    One evening I was hanging out, and it was just pouring rain, a big thunderstorm, and I looked out my side window which looked out over the adjacent rooftops and next door there were about twenty men and women in black robes dancing in the rain. And, then the robes came off and they chanted and shouted to their pagan G-d’s. It was pretty freaky. I would look out my bedroom window at Essex Street below. It was vacant lot. Bombed out cars and trucks were there, used by the junkies to sleep and fuck. More than once, you’d hear a fight, or a shout, and then… inevitably, the sound of a siren. I remember one morning waking up, sipping my coffee with a friend who was visiting from upstate. He was watching a couple spoon in the lot below. They couldn’t have been more than 18 years old.
    So, maybe it is time to leave all that behind. It won’t disappear, it will go one somewhere else. But, some places gather enough ghosts, and all they can do to keep from falling in on themselves…
    Maybe change is a form of giving those old ghosts some rest….
    Least, I’d like to think so….

  3. DK- I know we don’t always agree, not even on best knishes (I am/was a mrs. stahls kinda guy) but you’ve hit the nail on the head with this, we do find ourselves in the precarious place of losing our ties to the NYC Jewish past, even as so many of us are making our own contribution. Thanks for the reminder, I definitely could stand to hit Yonah up.

  4. what strikes me is how i did not treasure these places when i lived in the east village. i just went to them was all. i went to ratners cause it was nearby, and good. i went to 2nd avenue deli because it kicks ASS and was on my corner…but i only went at weird times when it wasn’t crowded. and i will admit that i never went to YKs, but only because i don’t like knishes.
    anyway, i didn’t treasure then. now that i live on the great fringe of the diaspora out in SF, i marvel at the feeling of treasure they’ve gone and accumulated for me. nostalgia is sort of embarassing, but honestly you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. perhaps this forced nostalgia will inspire you new yorkers to make new monuments? don’t lament, build!

  5. Sarah and RubyK,
    Reverend Jen, a major personality of the Lower East Side, says that it isn’t helpful to spend time looking back at other eras and contrasting unfavorably to today, and I agree with that, even if I am personally inclined to do so sometimes.
    But I don’t think it is future or past. I think we can continue to build new monuments, but still attempt to protect and nurture the old ones. And yeah, some of us might be a little more attached to the old ones, but time deepens a relationship, provided it is continuous.

  6. I live in Chicago. My parents took my to Ratners when I was a kid. I’d heard of, read about and longed for YS Knishes… The very idea of this place made me cry inside… Because there’s no good knishes in Chicago, trust me.
    This summer, tamping around the LES, I almost lost hope, and then dejectedly walking back to the subway, i stumbled on its doorstep and brought a case of knishes home to chicago with me… The cabbage ones are purple, fluffy and sweet. YS kishes rock my socks off.

  7. Oy, enough already. The only thing constant is change! Washington Irving complained that NYC wasn’t what it used to be. If you can’t hack change, move to Philadelphia!!

  8. Mr. Guy Guy,
    You are correct that this always has been an aspect of the City, it’s contsant upheaval into something else.
    But there was a rethinking in the early 60’s, with Jane Jacobs’ successful uprising against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and the Landmark Commission began, after the destruction of the Bronx, and Penn Station.
    If the real estate mogul and corporate capilitalists had their way, they would privitize the subway, bulldoze the Statue of Liberty to make room for condominums, and put big glass luxury buildings in the Village (just as they are about to do in Williamsburg) , all in the name of economic progress.
    And then the city would begin not to look like Phildelphia, but more like anywhere.
    And that would be a terrible shame.

  9. actually, before I went to NYC (from Australia) I never knew Knishes were part of the Jewish menu. I had never gone past the bagel (which has only just got beyond ethnic status here). I went to Yonah’s and tried one of their little knishe buns … yum yum ….
    It was great to read David (SNAFU Principle)’s memories on the good ol bad days. I think its true that change has been the only constant for NYC, and I think change is fine, but not if it buries Jewish NYC, affordable housing, and replaces it with more yuppiedom.
    Good Shabbos

  10. Hi:
    I am a grandnephew of Yonah Schimmel-my maternal grandmother was his sister and I would like to see the picture of Yonah hanging from the wall e mailed to me as I would like to include it in a family tree.
    I do not live in NY and would appreciate receiving it.

  11. Many goyim–myself included–feel the loss of these places, too. I’ve always said that anyone who grows up in New York is (culturally) Jewish to some extent, certainly when it comes to food, humor and language!
    As I drift into “early middle age”, I feel fortunate to have experienced many of the places and things that really defined the New York of the 20th century–some of which may have been in decline during my time but were still kicking, so many of which have disappeared or are disappearing. New York is changing and not always for the better. But it’s true that the bottom line has always ruled and will forever drive the changes. Concerns for the “soul” or “character” of places and institutions in the city have played a secondary role, then and now.
    I wonder if, in my old age, I’ll be reading blogs from second- and third-generation Chinese-Americans bemoaning the loss of the L.E.S. their ancestors knew at the turn of the 21st century before they were driven out by gentrification, “development” and so on. It’s quite possible…
    With love and knishes,
    electronic_dave at h0tm&il

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