‘Rivington Street [on the Lower East Side] is the latest scene of war. It is a knish war,” — or at least that’s what the New York Times reported in 1916, in an article titled “Rivington St. Sees War: Rival Restaurant Men Cut Prices on the Succulent Knish,” which highlighted competing knish shops in the neighborhood.
Today few knisheries — sellers of the round softball-sized potato and dough treats — remain. But the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery, the granddaddy of American knish shops, is celebrating a century of the doughy goodies.
“If you haven’t had a Yonah Schimmel knish, you haven’t had a knish,” says Ellen Anistratov, who co-owns the store with her father, Alex Wolfson, a distant relative of Yonah Schimmel’s. “Any other knish is like a copy of a Chanel.”
After immigrating to New York City from Romania, Yonah Schimmel, a trained Torah scribe, wanted to be a teacher. But, to make ends meet, he started selling his wife’s knishes on Coney Island in the 1880s. After a brief stint selling knishes in another location, Schimmel opened his legendary store on East Houston Street in 1910.
During its 100-year existence, the store has been passed down through family members. Today, it remains virtually unchanged, with the original tables and display case, as well as the dumb waiter that brings the knishes from the kitchen downstairs to the shop above.
The walls are covered with newspaper articles and photographs of famous diners, including Larry David, Barbra Streisand and Woody Allen.
“It’s a destination for people.…People eat [Schimmel’s knishes] to connect them to their history,” says Laura Silver, who is currently researching a book on knishes. “You feel like you’re entering a different era.”
And where will Yonah Schimmel be in another 100 years? Perhaps just around the corner.
“I want to take it to another level — franchises, other stores.…” says Anistratov, between helping customers in the bustling shop. “But I still want to be the one making the knishes. I don’t trust anybody else.”