Great Reads, Postcards from the Lower East Side

A letter to Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery

May 6, 2020


“Knishery is a nice word,” a friend once told me. Knish, he likened to a term of endearment. Close enough to kiss — but while a kiss can make your heart skip a beat, a knish settled in your belly can make your soul sing. Deeply satiating, the knish is typically baked, sometimes fried and always filled — whether it be with potato, beef, sauerkraut, sweet cheese and preserves, or kasha. You can love a knish easily. Sometimes you can even love two, although that might overwhelm you a little.

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery knows this love. They document their admirers — locals and tourists, celebrities and politicians — on the walls and in the storefront window of a facade that has remained the same through decades. Their love is New York’s love.

The journey of Yonah Schimmel’s starts in Coney Island. Yonah, a Romanian rabbi, and his wife opened their knish pushcart business in 1890. Twenty years later, Yonah opened the store on Houston street with his cousin, Joseph Bergerand. A hundred and ten years later, the shop still stands. Still family run, waiting in line at Yonah Schimmel’s is similar to standing in someone’s kitchen during a holiday. A cozy silence, interrupted by momentary arguing or loud laughter. Hands thrown excitedly in the air, knishes thrown lovingly in the oven.

A culinary institution that’s lived over a hundred years has seen its fair share of New Yorks, and New Yorkers, each with their own unique memories of Yonah Schimmel’s. In the early eighties, my mother, in fishnets, walked across Alphabet City at its worst to see a boy who lived on Norfolk street… and to buy a Yonah Schimmel blueberry cheese knish, surely the zaftig cousin of a blueberry blintz; a dish, she says now, much more worthy of her affections. My father brought his friend to Yonah Schimmel’s and made him order a knish, filled with kasha… which is much more of an acquired taste, and therefore didn’t go over as well as he’d hoped. Over the years, I’ve brought my own friends, and sometimes dates, to experience the delicious yet affordable dish. A knish is something you want to give, you want to share, with those you hold dear.

Just like any good love story, Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery will leave you happy, comforted, and satisfied. They’ll do what they can to see you come back for seconds. That’s love.

Written by:

Arabella Friedland has been a member of the Tenement Museum Shop staff since 2015. She is a visual artist and writer, inspired by New York and all its complexities.