Once upon a time in New York City’s Lower East Side, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe sold knishes from pushcarts and little knisheries.
That was more than 100 years ago, but still today, those round dumplings filled with cheese, kasha or potatoes are a staple in delicatessens. Author Joanne Oppenheim was fascinated with the popularity of those delicious noshes from way back then and wanted kids today to know about them.
So she wrote The Knish War on Rivington Street (Albert Whitman), which was just published in August. The story, which is based on true events that happened in 1916, tells about Benny and his family, who have a successful baked knish business on Rivington Street.
People waited in line to buy Benny’s family knishes — and at 5 cents a knish, it was a real bargain. Then, the Tisch family opens a store across the street and start selling square, fried knishes. A knish war ensues and prices drop, signs are made, raffles are created, street music is played — anything to sway customers to buy from them. The mayor comes for a visit, and he couldn’t decide which kind he liked better — round or square? Baked or fried? Eventually the rivals had a truce and Rivington Street was called the Knish Capital of the World.
Oppenheim, who was born and raised in New York’s Catskill Mountains in the Borsch Belt, lives in New York City — she got the idea to write the book after she heard a lecture about the history of knishes.
“I was at an event at the Brooklyn Historical Society and a woman called ‘The Knish Lady’ was talking about the knish war on Rivington Street,” she says. “I went to the archives and read about it in a New York Times article written in January 1916.”
Although her book is very entertaining, her hope is to convey the message that competition is OK, and you don’t have to be the best as there is always more than one way of doing something. She also wanted to capture pictures of what life was like at another time — which Jon Davis’ illustrations charmingly achieve.
At the end of her book, Oppenheim added a recipe for knishes. “I mentioned to the editor it would be great to include a recipe — so I had to learn how to make them at home,” she says. “I had to look up recipes and adapt them and make them my own. With beginner’s luck, I think they turned out to be delicious.”
Oppenheim has written more than 50 books for and about kids, including The Prince’s Bedtime and The Prince’s Breakfast. She co-founded, along with her daughter, the Oppenheim Toy Portfolio (toyportfolio.com), where they review children’s products and became contributors on NBC’s Today Show.
According to Oppenheim, when she began writing the book she knew that kids are more familiar with bagels, but she wanted her book to be about a Jewish food perhaps not so widely known. “I wanted kids to understand what a knish was,” she says. “And who knows — maybe knishes will have a rebirth.”
Alice Burdick Schweiger Special to the Jewish News