January 8, 2010
Last week in New York we ate at Yonah Schimmel’s Knishes on Houston Street in the Lower East Side. My friend Chuck first took me there in 1981. Chuck wasn’t Jewish, but he was vegan, and Yonah’s knishes and borscht fit perfectly into a diet that allowed him to enjoy about 1/100 of any restaurant menu. Chuck was an ethical vegan—he was a professional nonviolent activist, and he refused to use any animal products. He wouldn’t eat honey because it “enslaves” bees. We argued about this constantly. Bees make honey anyway, I’d say. “But not for us,” he’d say.
Chuck was a living reminder of how slippery the slope of food consciousness is. One minute you don’t want to eat a cow whose esophagus is pulled out while it’s alive. The next thing you know, every honeybee becomes Spartacus.
In 1981 the Lower East Side hadn’t been gentrified. We’d get to Yonah Schimmel’s by noon, because by 1 or 2 pm the run down store would be out of knishes and its homemade yogurt. We’d be sure to be out of the area by nightfall. It was full of graffitti, abandoned buildings, and criminals who didn’t share my nostalgia for the neighborhood where my Eshman and Peshkin forbears arrived from Eastern Europe and huddled in crowded tenements. Yonah Schimmel‘s was founded in 1910. Aaron Eshman arrived from Pinsk in 1901 and lived not three blocks from the place. There is no chance, none, that he never sat where I sat, and ate his knish, in joy and peace.
Today the Lower East Side is largely gentrified, and not at all Jewish. Yonah Schimmel’s has hung on, prospered in fact, as the walls full of newspaper stories and celebrity photos can attest. A Ukrainian born family owns and runs the place now. When we ate there a couple weeks ago the place was packed with tourists. The owner alternated between bringing out knishes to the tables and digging through boxes in the back for a size Large Yonah Schimmel T-shirt someone wanted to buy.
The knishes are still good: A baseball-sized hunk of mildly-peppery mashed potato filling surrounded by a thin pastry crust and baked. The kasha-filled knish is a lot of buckwheat groats, more than you’re likely to eat the entire rest of the year. That’s the one Chuck always ordered.
The best menu item is the yogurt. They make it with what they claim is the original culture, started in the Schimmel kitchen in the late 19th century. That means my great-grandfather and I are essentially sharing a yogurt every time I eat there. It’s good too: mild and fresh. And often sold out by noon.
Chuck died several years ago. He was 54 and he developed stomach cancer. Go figure. I go to Yonah Schimmel on every trip to New York. It’s chic now, but it’s the same. All the other vestiges of the Jewish Lower East Side have disappeared: there’s the Tenement Museum, the Blue Moon Hotel, a few shmatta stores from the old days, and Gus’s Pickles—but, face it, it’s over. So what? People led crowded, miserable lives there. They worked hard, got their kids educated, the kids moved out, and their kids never got to experience the joy of living in a tinderbox where 200 other people share the same fetid outhouse.
I don’t go back for the nostalgia. I go for the same reason most Jews give when asked why they attend synagogue once a year: because their parents did. Day to day life can take you far from yourself, from who you are, and you need to do something to bring you back, to anchor yourself to yourself. For some people that means sitting in the pew of their neighborhood church, the one where their mom and grandma knelt. For me it means going back to the place my ancestors ate. I sit and eat and feel myself getting centered, and full.
That’s why I go. To eat a good potato knish with mustard, and with my great-grandfather.
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