Laura Silver is the author of Knish: In Search of the Jewish Soul Food. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Forward, and the Jerusalem Report. She lives in Brooklyn.
Q: You write that for your family, “the knish served as flag, emblem, flower, and bird.” Why did it take on such importance, and why did you decide to write about it?
A: I never thought of it that way—that occurred to me in retrospect. I thought of the idea for the book after Mrs. Stahl’s [knish shop] went out of business. I started writing articles, and I found out that my family was from Knyszyn, Poland. I thought, Oh, wow! It’s part of my identity more than I imagined!
Q: What did you learn about your family from writing the book?
A: Some of it is specific to my family, and some would apply to all families. It’s so much more than it appears on the surface—like with the knish! I had a hard time realizing my nana’s name was different. The biggest thing I [learned] was that there’s a lot that didn’t get passed down, and how much was lost collectively and individually. What else was hidden? There are more secrets…than you can ever know.
Q: How did you research the book, and what else was surprising?
A: The biggest finding was a poem in Poland from 1614. The knish wasn’t inherently Jewish in its first mention. In modern-day knishiana, you think of it as a food that’s intrinsically Jewish, [part of the] contemporary New York Jewish immigrant experience. In fact, it has roots in another culture as well.
And that it’s linked to mourning rituals—I was holding on to it as a symbol of my grandma. After my great-aunt died, my family headed to Mrs. Stahl’s. I had no idea the knish had a long history of comforting.
Q: How did the knish become the “Jewish soul food”?
A: I first came across the team in Ukrainian—“bread for the soul.” I felt that this food was linked to my deepest recesses. It’s a comfort food, but it’s beyond that—it’s a symbol of history and identity, but it gets in the gut, which isn’t too far from the soul.
Soul food is most often identified with African American food. This is a different definition. It’s like the book Chicken Soup for the Soul—it’s a deeply comforting food, part of an identity, part of a people.
Q: How did you find and track down all the photos that appear in the book?
A: Painstakingly! Some I found in the course of my research, some I took. I did do some photo research. The photo of the movie still with two people eating a knish—[a website] had the picture, but didn’t list which movie. I appealed to the New York Public Library arts division, and they cracked the code for me. It’s a testament to amazing librarians and archives. The movie was The Night They Raided Minsky’s.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on [turning part of the knish book] into a kids’ book. That’s one spinoff. One [other] project is about the pomegranate, and one is about family stories. One is about the mermaid of the Lower East Side, a swim instructor, Jane Katz. She’s one of my heroes.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: At its core, [Knish] is really a story of regular people. I feel lucky to have been able to find the stories. I didn’t know where it would take me—I didn’t realize there were so many stories of people who worked hard to make things, and serve their people, and keep a tradition alive. These people laid the groundwork for a lot of the success American Jews enjoy today. The knish has sustained us—now it’s time for us to sustain the knish.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Laura Silver will be participating in the Lessans Family Annual Book Festival, which runs from November 6-16, 2014, at the JCC of Greater Washington.
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