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The Knish War on Rivington Street

A Sydney Taylor Notable Book 2018

Guides of NYC Apple Award 2018

Tablet Magazine's Best Jewish Children's Books of 2017

Benny’s family owns a knishery and sells delicious round dumplings. Then the Tisch family opens a store across the street—selling square knishes for a penny less—and Benny’s papa worries. So what does he do?  He lowers his prices, but then Mr. Tisch does it again. As each knishery tries to outdo the other, Benny helps his papa realize there’s room on Rivington Street for more than one knishery.

IS THIS REALLY A TRUE STORY?

YES and NO: The true story of The Knish War on Rivington Street popped up on the Brooklyn Historical Society’s website announcing a program by Laura Silver, a writer aka the Knish Lady. Her program about the history of knishes struck me as funny. So I went—especially since they were going to serve knishes.

 

In her presentation Laura mentioned a story from 1916 in the New York Times Archives about a Knish War over "Succulent Knishes." As soon as I read that article, I knew it was a picture book waiting to happen!

 

But, it wasn't quite so simple. The original knish war began as a price war and grew into a comic moments of one-up-man-ship. Oddly the newspaper never told how the knish war ended. I had to make that part up. I also added the debate about baked or fried and round vs square. There was no mention of how they cooked their knishes. Of course, those of us who eat knishes these days generally have a strong preference for one kind over another. I also had fun making up rhymes for the signs. The hardest part was cutting out some of the funny scenes that wouldn't fit in a picture book.

 

Maybe I'll find someone to make a cartoon and I'll be able to use all the scenes and signs that ended up on the cutting room floor. For those who like a nosh with their story, I’ve included recipes for making both kinds of knishes. I was thrilled when this book was chosen by PJ Library.

Click the arrow to download the Teacher's Guide for using
The Knish War on Rivington Street in the classroom. You'll need to scroll down to find the grey activity box to find the download.  

"A tasty slice of New York City immigrant lore.”Kirkus 

First Pre-pub review

“It's war to the last crumb of potato, cheese, and kasha on New York City's Lower East Side. The first knishery has opened in the early years of the 20th century on Rivington Street amid Manhattan's largely Eastern European Jewish immigrant community. The delicious, oversized dumplings are baked with a filling of potatoes, cheese, or kasha (buckwheat groats) and fill one's tummy with warmed-up heavenly heaviness. Benny's family business is busy and successful until a new store opens right across the street. This knishery sells fried knishes! From baked to fried and from round to square—a war of reduced-by-a-penny pricing begins. Signs, raffles, street music, and a visit from the mayor follow. After many tastings, the mayor makes a politically sound decision by proclaiming "Rivington Street: the Knish Capital of the World!" The author has based her entertaining saga of economic warfare on an actual event as reported in the New York Times in January 1916…A tasty slice of New York City immigrant lore.”

                                                                 Kirkus Review 2017

"A welcome jaunt that will be fun to share with young listeners." Booklist

"Oy vey! Benny’s family has been selling scrumptious knishes—baked round dumplings filled with onions, cheese, and potatoes—since the family moved to America. But now the Tisch family has moved to Rivington Street on New York’s Lower East Side, with a knish store of their own. Bad enough the Tisch knish is square instead of round, but they’re selling it for a penny cheaper! So begins the knish war, which really happened in 1916. Oppenheim puts her own spin on the story, capturing all the humor of warring families cutting the cost of their knishes, handing out coupons, and fighting over every crumb. Davis’ watercolor illustrations emphasize the fun, the crowds, and the sly undercutting, until the mayor of New York enters the fray and solves the problem. Both tale and art (with neatly evocative costuming) bring readers back to the turn of the last century, but this story, with its keen observation of human nature, feels very much of today. A welcome jaunt that will be fun to share with young listeners."

                                                                                               Booklist Online on 7/25/17

"A knish competisch...a joyful story of people who take pride in their work, but eventually realize a fundamental truth: there's no such thing as too many knishes."   Horn Book  

"Benny’s family’s baked knishes sell like hotcakes on New York’s Lower East Side, but then the Tisches move in across the street with their fried knishes. A knish competisch ensues: prices drop, stores expand, Benny and his young counterpart Solly carry signs, and each proprietor hires musicians (“Such ritzy-pitzy music had never been heard before on Rivington Street”); the noise level becomes so bad that the mayor gets involved. Lively drawings show the early-twentieth-century street clogged with eager knish consumers. An author’s note (accompanied by recipes, of course!) explains that this story was inspired by a true one reported in a 1916 New York Times article, and the lengthy text does have undertones of immigrants’ economic concerns (“For four cents they could put us out of business!”) and hints of language difficulties (it’s Benny who letters the sign for Papa). Overall, though, this is a joyful story of people who take pride in their own work, but eventually realize a fundamental truth: there’s no such thing as too many knishes. "                                             Horn Book Sept/Oct 2017

"Oppenheim establishes a brisk pace that grows ever more giddy…Davis’s crisp-line cartooning makes the cacophony and comic high anxiety of the neighborhood downright appetizing."  Publisher's Weekly  

“In a story set on New York City’s Rivington Street in roughly the same period evoked in William Steig’s When Everyone Wore a Hat, two immigrant families open knisheries—bakeries selling savory dumplings—right across from each other. Free market mania ensues, triggering a cascade of price undercutting (with the knishes going for pennies, the profit margins are razor thin) and sales gimmicks (raffles, music, free samples, and sandwich board signs for Benny and Solly, the dutiful but dubious young scions of each family). The knishes sell like hotcakes, so to speak, but the competitive fervor soon has the neighborhood complaining “Enough already!” Oppenheim (The Prince’s Bedtime) establishes a brisk pace that grows ever more giddy, although she may have taken universality a little too far: in a book set on the Lower East Side and centered on Jewish food, characters, and inflections, the word “Jewish” never appears. Davis’s (Small Blue and the Deep Dark Night) crisp-line cartooning makes the cacophony and comic high anxiety of the neighborhood downright appetizing. Ages 4–8”                       Publisher’s Weekly 2017

."A great book for children ages 4-8. The illustrations are fun, the text is funny, and the educational message comes across gently. This delightful picture book is highly recommended. "     Jewish Book Council

Q & A about The Knish War on Rivington Street 

What was your inspiration for The Knish War on Rivington Street?

 

There really was a Knish War on Rivington Street, an event I heard about quite by accident. I was looking up information about the Brooklyn Historical Society and noticed a program by Laura Silver, who called herself the Knish Lady, which struck me funny. The program notes mentioned an article from 1916 in the New York Times about a price war between two knisheries. When I read that article, I knew it was a picture book just waiting to happen.

 

Does that happen often—finding a ready-made story in the news?

 

You never know where an idea will pop up. You just need to keep your antennae up. But finding a story, even a true story, is not the same as turning it into a book. My first attempt at telling this story was done in verse. I had fun doing that, but one editor who liked the story did not want the story told in rhyme. I did a total rewrite.

 

Was that hard? Changing it to prose?

 

Well, I insisted on holding on to Tisch’s Knishes, and kept some of the rhymes for the signs—oops, I do find rhymes all the time. The harder part was giving the story more dimension. The real knish war was strictly a price war. But the war in my book needed more of a conflict. So, I added the age-old fight over the virtues of baked vs fried and round vs square. That wasn’t part of the original story, although today, most knish lovers do have a preference.

 

What kind of knishes do you prefer?

No contest— I like mine round, baked, and filled with potato. By the way, you'll find a recipe for making them (and the fried ones, too) in the back of the book. 

 

 

How did you find the voices for Benny and Solly’s fathers?

 

I’m sure I was channeling my grandfather, Nathan Fleischer. Here's a photo of him in his bakery,

which was probably a lot like Max’s knishery. I can still hear the way he and others of his generation

of immigrants spoke and how hard they worked to make a better life in their new country. His

English was punctuated with Yiddish, but he rarely spoke of the old country—only of leaving it and

how he “ran all the way to America.” His favorite song was God Bless America.   

 

How did you bring this time-period and setting to life?

 

My mother was born on the Lower East Side in a tenement and sometimes spoke of the crowded, dark, damp tenement where they lived on Orchard Street. Like many immigrant families they left for the Bronx as soon as they could and rarely looked back. Years later, I still like walking on the same streets where her Zaydee, her grandfather had a pushcart. I’ve seen photos from that time and although the peddlers and their pushcarts are mostly gone now, the narrow streets with little storefronts and buildings are still there. Today they’re art galleries and fancy stores, but it’s not hard to imagine how it must have been when the streets bustled with people that look like those in Jon Davis’ drawings. You can still go downtown and even have a knish!

What do you hope children take from this story?

I certainly hope the story will entertain them, and introduces some to the joy of knishes. But at its heart, I wanted to address the bigger idea, that there is not only one BEST....whether we're talking about knishes, bagels, friends, books, or whatever. That's what the Mayor tries to tell Max and Solly's dads—that there is not one, and only one, delicious kind of knish and by extension—we don't all like the same thing and that is all right, too.  

What books did you like to read as a kid? What type of books do you like to read now?

 

As a kid. I was a devoted fan of Nancy Drew. But as a teenager I liked reading history-especially biographies and autobiographies. I still enjoy reading mysteries for entertainment but for my work as a writer, I love digging in history books and archives for good stories to share, like the Knish War on Rivington Street.

             He said he"ran all the way to America!"