Places that Matter

Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery

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Storefront exterior, 2017
Storefront exterior, 2017
Shipping suggestions, 2017
Dining area with fan ephemera, 2017
Display case at the front of Yonah Schimmel's shop, 2017
Yonah Schimmel's Knish Bakery
Where a variety of knishes are baked from scratch daily
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Knish is a Yiddish word for dumpling. Yonah Schimmel—his wife invented the knish,” says Ellen Anistratov, sixth-generation owner of Yonah Schimmel’s, the Lower East Side’s original family-run knish bakery. “This is the first knishery that came to the United States. So you can make whatever you want and call it whatever you want. But it doesn’t make it original. They make those square, fried knishes? The ones that are like a meat patty, you know? That’s not a knish. So, I always tell people, if you haven’t tried Yonah Schimmel’s, you haven’t really had a knish.”
Apocryphal or not, the Schimmels are credited with introducing the American public to the true, pure form of the now-ubiquitous Jewish dumpling. Yonah and his wife came to the United States from Romania in 1890, when the Lower East Side was stronghold for the recently-arrived Eastern European Jewish community. Schimmel was a Torah scholar and hoped to earn a living through Talmudic training, but his working class neighbors could not afford to pay for religious education. So, Mrs. Schimmel began making knishes, which were sold from a pushcart that traversed the Lower East Side, Coney Island, and anywhere people could scrape together a handful of pennies for a warm, filling—and soon-to-be-familiar—snack.
Satisfied bellies and wallets spelled success, so Schimmel and his cousin Joseph Berger rented a storefront on the north side Houston Street, where Peretz Square is today. In 1910, they moved the business to its current location on the south side of Houston, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. The business thrived, and Schimmel went back to studying while Berger took over catering to the cultured kosher set who frequented the theaters along Second Avenue when it was known as the Yiddish Rialto. But customers and culinary critics of all backgrounds have long appreciated the Lower East Side’s classic comfort food. In 1966, Milton Glazer and Jerome Snyder wrote, “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.”
The long list of Schimmel’s better-known devotees includes the likes of chefs Martha Stewart and Jamie Oliver, actors Barbara Streisand and Jerry O’Connell, and filmmakers Ron Howard and Francis Ford Coppola. Both anonymous and famous regulars come through the door as strangers and return again time and again as dear friends. Of meeting Francis Ford Coppola, Anistratov recalls, “the first time he came in he ordered a dozen kasha knishes.” Ellen was alone in the store and offered a congenial, “ ‘you look like an old customer.’ I was just creating conversation. I had no idea who he was. And he goes to me, ‘you probably know me from somewhere else.’” After a few rounds of declining to share his identity, Ellen had to know. “Are you an actor?” she persisted. Finally the customer scribbled his name on a postcard. “I couldn’t read it. He gave me that look like, ‘are you kidding me?’ So on the bottom he wrote, The Godfather. And I said, ‘Oh! Nice to meet you!’ He came back in 2010 for the 100th anniversary. We were like good buddies already.”
Now more than one hundred years old, almost everything about the bakery is original. The original dumbwaiter carries trays of piping hot knishes from the basement kitchen to the ground floor storefront, which maintains its original showcase, pressed tin ceiling, and ancient, unyielding tables for dining in.
And, of course, the recipe is also original. “A knish is OUR knish,” Anistratov insists. Beyond that, a knish is made from five main ingredients: potato and/or something mixed with potato, onion, and spices. The filling of flavorful, smashed potato is then wrapped in flour dough rolled so thin as to be translucent. Together the parts are gently shaped into a round and baked. In the old days, Schimmel’s offered plain, kasha, spinach, and sweet potato. Since taking over the helm, Anistratov has introduced a variety of new flavors, including jalapeño-cheddar, red cabbage, blueberry cheese, and tomato-mozzarella. Jamie Oliver, the Naked Chef, spent the day with Ellen, and included Schimmel’s knishes in a recent cookbook. Oliver invented his own knish featuring spinach, cheddar and potato, called The Royalty.
Anistratov’s family arrived in New York from the Ukraine in 1979. Her father, Alex, was the Schimmel’s great-nephew, and began working at the bakery as a busboy on his second day in the country. Decades later he became the manager, and Ellen more or less grew up restocking the display case. Now Ellen and her sister run the shop with the help of a dedicated baking staff, most of whom have made a career of knishes. “We love the bakers! One guy was here for thirty years, and now his grandson works here. It’s like a lineage to be passed on, both in the family and extended to our employees.”
So beloved is Yonah Schimmel’s that the city provided two (metered) parking spaces on Forsyth, around the corner from the store, so the multitudes of car-oriented dash-in-and-out customers would still be able to access the business. That parking lot is now a hotel, but the phones continue to ring off the hook night and day. Ellen is often there, fielding call-in orders while packing those to be shipped anywhere in the United States, overnight or second-day air. Weddings, bar mitzvahs, party platters. Warner Brothers offices treat each other to knish deliveries every winter holiday season.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Anistratov’s opened the cafe and closed early. “It was dangerous to walk around, so we would shut down at six. Now it’s like everything is happening after six. So now we close seven, eight. It depends. I never close my doors on a customer.”
“This place has it’s own living energy,” Anistratov says. “People feel that love. People feel that connection. One man said that his father used to bring him here when he was little. And since his father passed, he feels like his father’s soul is here. And he actually says that he feels like there are a lot of souls in the dumbwaiter. And I feel that the energy of the bible that the Schimmels loved is in these knishes. The bible doesn’t die, and god willing, Yonah Schimmel Knishes should be here for at least another hundred years.”
(October, 2017)