It’s cheese! It’s mustard! It’s…a knish?
By Symi Rom-Rymer
If you happened to be walking down Second Avenue in New York’s East Village last Sunday afternoon, you might have seen an unexpected sight: a small and solemn processional of people dressed in yellow. This was no McDonald’s protest or cheese parade. Instead, it was a celebration and memorialization of an oft-forgotten history.
In the 1920s, Second Avenue—then part of the Jewish Lower East Side– was known for two things: Yiddish theater and food. Artistically, it rivaled Broadway in its offerings, putting on plays by renowned playwrights such as Leo Tolstoy and George Bernard Shaw even before they reached mainstream American audiences. So great was its popularity that when Yiddish theater great Jacob P. Adler, father of famed acting coach Stella Adler, died in 1926, two thousand people flooded the streets to pay homage. Its popular restaurants with traditional foods such as knishes gave Second Avenue its other nickname, Knish Alley. Its reputation as street-foodie heaven was sealed when Abe Lebewohl opened the 2nd Avenue Deli at the corner of East 10th Street and Second Avenue in 1954. But more than just a favorite food, the knish also played, as it still does, an important role in politics. Politicians and their wives, including Eleanor Roosevelt, would often stop by Jewish bakeries and buy knishes to cultivate the Jewish vote.
Today, amidst the hip outdoor cafes and dive bars, little remains of the avenue’s former theatrical and Jewish culinary glory. The Yiddish theater Walk of Fame is overshadowed by a Chase Bank and the 2nd Avenue deli is now on East 33rd St. But Laura Silver, the organizer of the processional, wants to remind people about what used to be on the avenue. “I can’t expect to educate people about the history of Yiddish theater in five or ten minutes. I just wanted them to learn something about the history. I wanted to show that there is something here that they are missing. I wanted to create a spectacle, because it’s harder to avoid. I don’t want to assault people but I want to get them to ask questions and take a closer look. It’s for Jews but it’s also for a mainstream audience. And when we took out mini-knishes, people swarmed to us.”
One female bystander commented to one of the participants that she didn’t know what the parade was for but that “it’s so beautiful. I’m sure it’s for a great cause.” Others shouted out, “It’s a knish! It’s a knish!” But the most powerful moment of the afternoon was an unscripted appearance by Binah, an elderly woman passerby who grew up going to the Yiddish theaters and eating knishes from Yonah Shimmel’s Knish Bakery. With a wide smile, she remembered how good they were and said, “made with either buttermilk or sour milk, they were heaven. God how I loved them.”
In the middle of the processional, Silver led her group into a movie theater that used to be a Yiddish theater. “Inside, there was a movie playing there called I Spit on Your Grave and and I thought, ‘we’re doing the opposite. We’re polishing the gravestone, we’re paying homage.’”
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe.