Jewish Food Traditions Continue to Resonate on the Lower East Side

By Sabrina Treitz

Alex is with the family—specifically the Berger family of The Original Yonah Schimmel Knishery.  He ducks in and out of the dumbwaiter, carrying freshly baked knishes—both potato and cheese trays that travel from basement ovens—and deposits them behind the counter.  In between taking orders and restocking the knish supply, Alex and another Yonah Schimmel employee bicker.

“Can I sit down?” asks a customer, preferring to eat his knish inside and effectively interrupting the workers’ disagreement.

“Tables are only for sit down service,” answers Alex’s coworker.

But Alex cuts in and waves the man back, overruling the other young man to his left.  As the patron seats himself and the argument starts back up, a chorus of rushed Yiddish words sounds and carries out the door, into the streets of the Lower East Side, before the pair behind the counter gets back to work, falling into a rhythm of picking up knishes—from savory potato knishes filled with a variety of vegetables to fruit-stuffed cheese knishes—placing them in the case, and interacting with customers.

A couple looks at knishes displayed in Yonah Schimmel's store front.

A couple looks at knishes displayed in Yonah Schimmel’s store front.

Similar work dynamics are displayed by the Jewish family businesses that linger in and around Lower East Side streets.  As in many families, it is tradition, and of course the food, that matters most to these establishments.

Yonah Schimmel’s had its 100th birthday in 2010, but not much has changed, certainly not the fundamental knish recipe, over that century of time.  The quality of the product is closely monitored during the cooking process to ensure every knish is exactly as was served in 1910.  “We make everything with the hand,” Alex says.  “With the machine, you make it twenty times faster—oh, it’s no good,” he continues.  Making knishes by hand gives a different taste, a better taste, for Alex.

A knish, in its most basic form, is a potato dumpling nestled inside a thin pocket of fresh dough.  Mixed up with the potato filling are ingredients as gradient as a spectrum of light; from vegetable options, including spinach, mushroom, and red cabbage, to apple, blueberry, and chocolate inside  its cheese relative for dessert, there’s a knish for everyone and every moment.  The knishes at Yonah Schimmel’s are made round—though they can be found square at other vendors—and baked.  While a traditionalist customer’s order is most likely to be the basic potato knish, someone more daring might be tempted by the daily special—Saturday’s happened to be cheddar, onion, and red pepper.

The most frequent reaction Alex gets is “I didn’t know about this knish.”

When you walk a couple blocks over on East Houston Street to Katz’s Deli, time is not of the essence.  Again at Katz’s, the machine corrupts not the man but the flavor of the product.  Curing their own meats in the back of the deli, it is not just preferred but required that all the pastrami and corned beef be carved by hand before finding itself in the middle of a sandwich.  “It’s the worst business model on the face of the Earth, but if it makes a good sandwich, so be it,” says Jake Dell, titled as Top Dog, Jr. at Katz’s Deli on his business card.

Katz's Deli, a cafeteria-style deli located on East Houston Street.

Katz’s Deli, a cafeteria-style deli located on East Houston Street.

Dell, who says all of his clothes smell like pastrami, does not cut the meat.  After working every position at least once in his 25 years, he’s found it’s not his area of expertise.

“Kenny, can I cut a sandwich?” he asks an employee who walks by, and his only answer is a round of laughter that comes from across the cafeteria-style deli.

As a pre-med student at Tufts University, Dell withdrew all of his medical school applications to become the fifth generation owner of Katz’s Deli.  When it became apparent his father and uncle could no longer handle the business side of things, he answered the calling he says was in his blood.  “This business has given me everything I have in the world,” he says, and it was time for Dell to give it something in return.

Katz’s, which opened in 1888, is approaching its 125th year, and a street festival on June 2 will mark the delicatessen’s anniversary.  Shut-down and hay-covered, Ludlow street will play host to musical performances and a pastrami eating contest, while Dell hopes to jolt community members back in time to the late 19th century.

The growing popularity of Yiddish theatre in the early 20th century brought with it a parallel rise in Jewish food tradition, amongst this being the deli and the knishery.  Though the demographic of the Lower East Side has changed and the Yiddish theatre outgrew its fame, for these remaining Jewish eateries, the food remains the star of the show.

“Do you want to ask me about my name or about the knishes?” asks Yonah Schimmel’s Alex.  “Name or knishes?  I can only tell you about the knishes.”

The food is what is remembered, and the food is what keeps people coming back.

Alan Adler, the owner of Streit's Mazo Factory, in front of the mazo line.

Alan Adler, the owner of Streit’s Matzo Factory, in front of the matzo line.

“‘I was there when I was a kid 19 years ago,’” Alan Adler, chief operating officer of Streit’s Matzo Factory, says he remembers was once yelled out of a passing minivan on Rivington Street.  And many a kid will remember the signature pink box of Streit’s Matzo sitting on the table at Passover.

18 minutes or less is all it takes for a batch of Passover matzo to make its way from the mixing room, through the convection ovens, and into the hands of the workers, who break, stack, and rack the sheets.  The clock starts counting down the moment the flour meets the water.  As the rectangles bake, they are carefully inspected by the four full-time rabbis on staff for any imperfections that make it unsuitable for consumption.   The matzo is then sent off to the packing room.  Once boxed, it’s ready to find its way in the hands—and stomachs—of matzo lovers everywhere.

And once tourists and New Yorkers get their first bite, whether it be of a knish, pastrami sandwich, or matzo, they keep returning.

*Alex of Yonah Schimmel’s spoke on the condition that his last name not be published.

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