A Knish Tale, Wrapped in Old Newspaper

Photograph: Flickr

Gussie Schwebel isn’t a household name — yet. But the Boroslav, Romania-born woman wrote herself into history when she wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II.

Mrs. Schwebel ran an eponymous knish concern at 191 East Houston Street, just off Orchard Street (the former site of the recently shuttered Philly’s Cheese Steak, two doors down from the late, lamented Bereket Turkish restauarant and three blocks from Yonah Schimmel’s, it should live and be well, despite gossip hinting to the contrary). Forty-three years ago this week, “Ma” Schwebel graced the front page of the Forverts. Here’s how it came to be:

On the cusp of 1942, the New York Sun published an article titled, “Wars or No Wars the Knish Queen Carries On.” The story included a photo of a plump, smiling, apron-clad woman, perched over an open door, proffering a tray of knishes — seven rows of five each — packed shoulder to shoulder, like the inhabitants of the Lower East Side. Knishes were a simple food with the power to attract high society. “Mrs. Schwebel Turns Out Her Special Delicacies Golden Brown and the Big Shiny Cars Pull Up to Get Them,” boasted the subhead of the article. Mrs. Schwebel didn’t keep it to herself.

Two days later, Mrs. Schwebel sent a response by telegram.

A week after that, a letter arrived at 191 East Houston Street, by postal mail.

On January 27, in anticipation of the knish caper (and ostensibly tipped off by the baker herself) the New York Sun ran an early-edition headline: “First Lady to Get a Taste of Knish,” and relayed the play-by-play set to take place that afternoon:

But, ah, the best baked plans of knish women…

The next day Mrs. Schwebel, apron-clad and carrying a tray of knishes, appeared on the front page of the Forverts, with the headline, “Mrs. Roosevelt Would Like to Taste Jewish Knishes, but…”

On January 28, 1942, Gussie Schwebel appeared on the front page of the Forverts. Image courtesy of the Forward Association with thanks to Zachary Loeb of the Center for Jewish History.

Mrs. Schwebel persevered. In 1945, the Washington Post reported her intention to celebrate the end of World War II with mass production of her preferred pastry.

Mrs. Schwebel predicted that knish would eventually be synonymous with permanent peace, globally and at home and had a product name to prove it: “Republican and Democratic knishes — the delicious dishes.”

Footnotes:

(1) Letter, Gussie Schwebel to Eleanor Roosevelt, January 6, 1942; Folder: Schwebel, Gussie, 1942; Papers of Eleanor Roosevelt; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

(2) Letter, Malvina Thompson, Secretary to Mrs. Roosevelt, to Gussie Schwebel, January 12, 1942; Folder: Schwebel, Gussie, 1942; Papers of Eleanor Roosevelt; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

(3) Telegram, Gussie Schwebel to Malvina Thompson, January 14, 1942, Folder: Schwebel, Gussie, 1942; Papers of Eleanor Roosevelt; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

(4) Letter from Malvina Thompson to Gussie Schwebel, January 21, 1942. Folder: Schwebel, Gussie, 1942; Papers of Eleanor Roosevelt; Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, New York.

(5) “Mrs. Roosevelt Would Like to Taste Jewish Knishes, But…” Forverts (January 28, 1942): 1.

(6) Mary Harrington, “Romanian Chef Describes Plan for Peace —Built Around Food,” The Washington Post (May 13, 1945): S2.

Laura Silver is a sought-after speaker, knish-making instructor and the author of “Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food” (Brandeis University Press, May 2014).

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