Friday, February 12, 2016

At New York’s oldest knishery, nosh with a side of Jewish history 

They can be square, round, or rectangular. They can be sweet or savory. Some have dough so thin you can read the newspaper through it; others weigh enough they could be used for bicep curls.

Here at Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery, the oldest knishery in New York City, the round golden pastries are definitely on the zaftig side; each measures about four inches in diameter and weighs just less than one pound. As one of the last distinctly Jewish businesses in the Lower East Side, it enjoys a constant flow of customers, nostalgic for a taste of old world cuisine. 

"It's because it's handmade. So many things are made with machine; no one wants to do it by hand anymore, but not here," said Alex Wolfson, a descendent of Yonah Schimmel's as he raised the restaurant's dumbwaiter laden with trays of piping hot jalapeno-cheddar knishes.

Wolfson, who emigrated from Ukraine in 1979, co-owns the business with his daughter Ellen Anistratov. (He declined to divulge the bakery's annual income.) Less than a dozen employees work to keep the business running seven days a week from 9 a.m until about 7 p.m., sometimes later on weekends.

The little storefront has been around so long it's been immortalized in popular culture. In an oil painting of the store by Hedy Pagremanski now hangs in the Museum of the City of New York's permanent collection. Woody Allen's 2009 film "Whatever Works" starring Larry David featured the knishery's dining area. And photos of New York City politicians and actors are taped to the beverage case, which offers bottle of Dr. Brown sodas and Cel-Rays.

Yonah Schimmel's was so integral to the Lower East Side that "No New York politician in the last fifty years has been elected to public office without having at least one photograph taken showing him on the Lower East Side with a knish in his face," according to Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder's 1968 column in New York Magazine "Underground Eats." That proclamation is printed on a small flier, and still taped to the wall above a counter in the store.

Indeed Eleanor Roosevelt made campaign stops for her husband Franklin at Yonah Schimmel's, and earlier, uncle Theodore Roosevelt stopped in for kasha knishes during his tenure as NYPD police commissioner.

"It's a landmark, it's an institution," Laura Silver, the author of "Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food," said.

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