Many New Yorkers know the name Yonah Schimmel but very few know who he was - only that his knishes are some of the most famous in the world.
Schimmel was a Romanian rabbi who opened a pushcart with his wife on Coney Island in 1890. There they became famous for the potato and kasha dumplings known as knishes (the "k" is pronounced). In 1910, Schimmel went into business with his cousin Joseph Berger and opened up the store that still sits on Houston Street.
Over the decades, many notable fans have come by for a knish, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Barbara Streisand, and Woody Allen (who filmed a scene from Whatever Works here with Larry David).
Today, the shop, which is the last remaining knish bakery in Manhattan, is owned by a distant nephew of the Schimmel family, Alex Wolfman. Alex immigrated to New York in 1979 from the Ukraine and you can usually see him at the shop, waiting tables, and overseeing the knish baking. He runs the business with his daughter Ellen Anistratov.
We are proud to introduce many people to their first knish on our Tenements Tales and Tastes tour. We often have to explain what it is since it is rarely known outside New York or the Jewish community, They were very important among the poor immigrant community because they were cheap to make and would fill one up for a good portion of the day.
A knish is simply mashed potatoes seasoned with onions and pepper, stuffed inside a dough and then baked. This is the traditional knish and it's quite different from the square fried ones you will find at food carts or delis. Those are made in a factory out in the boroughs. The knishes at Yonah Schimmel's are baked downstairs and then sent up hot throughout the day via a dumb waiter which stands in the middle of the dining room.
In addition to the traditional potato knish, Yonah Schimmel has put together some other fun fillings. Broccoli, spinach, and mushroom are now also common. But you might be surprised to see knishes stuffed with sweet potatoes, jalapeño and mozzarella or sweet fillings like cheese with fruits or chocolate.
Yonah Schimmel is a New York institution and sadly the last of its kind. There used to be dozens of knisheries around the Lower East Side neighborhood but they all became victims to changing tastes and rising rents. Thankfully Yonah Schimmel has held on. And we went them to hold on at least another hundred years so they can tell the story and share the flavors of the humble knish.
Yonah Shimmel's Knish Bakery
137 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002