When is a knish more than just a knish? When it is the repository of more than a century of Jewish immigrant culture.
Silver’s debut nonfiction book is itself like a knish—deceptively simple. A knish is a pastry stuffed with potatoes, kasha, vegetables, cottage cheese, jam or anything really; truth be told, if you can name it, it’s probably been stuffed into a knish. On the surface, it’s heavy peasant food—carbs, often plus more carbs—but the artistry that goes into rolling out the thin dough and flavoring the filling is considerable. Similarly, Silver’s single-subject work of social history has been shaped with skill and nuance and—to continue chewing on the metaphor—seasoned with sharp humor and deep affection, not just for the pastry but for all the people whose lives it has touched. Silver starts with two memories: one of standing in the Polish town of Knyszen, where she had gone in search of the pastry’s roots; the other of the ritual meals of knishes she enjoyed with her Brooklyn-born grandmother. Though the knish arrived in the New World with Jewish immigrants, America is its homeland now, as it is nearly forgotten in Eastern Europe and barely recognized in Israel. Silver then introduces the pantheon of American knish makers, most of them gone today: Mrs. Stahl’s, Gabila’s, Schatzkin’s and others. Her loving, detailed portraits are bolstered by deep historical understanding. After the impressive beginning, the subsequent chapter “In Search of the First Knish” is rather thin and unsatisfying, as it winds haphazardly through Poland and Israel, Internet searches, and an interview or two. But Silver returns to surer ground as she explores pop culture and visits devoted knish makers in St. Paul, Minnesota. Her voice is energetic and deeply personal, and she’s unafraid of puns or a Yiddish turn of phrase; occasionally, that means cleverness trumps clarity and historical details get lost in showy storytelling tropes, but her enthusiasm and knowledge still carry readers along.
An accomplished piece of research shared in a delightfully readable way.