Monday, February 16, 2009


A knish (KEH-nish) or (k'nish) is most known as a kosher delicatessen side dish or eat-on-the-run fast food. Equally popular round or square, this individual serving of fried or baked dough stuffed with filling (usually potato) is said to have been introduced in the U. S. by Yiddish speaking Polish refugees, circa 1916. The Polish spelling: (knysz).

These days, knishes are available, from various distributors, at all the local South Jersey supermarkets.

I slather mine with spicy deli mustard, plenty of pepper and a dash of salt. I'm certain Iowans would use mayonnaise...but there really is no right or wrong way to eat them.

In my old Brooklyn neighborhood, Canarsie, a man named Ruby used to peddle knishes from a pushcart. My earliest recollection of Ruby the Knish Man was in 1963. It was my first year of Hebrew school and even to a less than sophisticated eight year-old like me, the concept of a pushcart was associated with the Depression and was as dated as spats!

It is difficult for me to tell one specific Ruby story because I never had a single defining moment with him. I just have my own random memories and those shared with me by friends. If you go to one of the "RUBY THE KNISH MAN" web-sites, you'll get more of a feeling of how he became, A MAN, A MYTH AND A Canarsie, throughout Brooklyn, the Catskill Mountains, possibly Florida if he ever actually went with his wife...and beyond.

THE MAN - Ruby's last name was Oshinsky and I assume his first name was Ruben but with the tons of cyber-information about him...his full name could not be verified. Born January 3, 1917, Ruby died October 9, 1987. He was brought-up in Williamsburg and lived in various Brooklyn "hot-spots" like Brownsville and East New York before settling in Canarsie.
While in the army, he served active combat duty during WWII. A family member on the web-page said that Ruby was used to interrogate German prisoners.

THE MYTH - Nobody should believe ANY Ruby stories because they are far-fetched and are the forty-year old sentimental recollections of grown-ups strolling down the Memory Lane of childhood. I went to that web-page (see above) and read at least a hundred Ruby testimonials until I came across similar stories to my own. As hard as it might be to believe...I'd say nearly ALL those tales are true.

THE LEGEND - Prior to the computer age, the Ruby saga was handed down from generation to generation. It seemed his life could only be fiction and more specifically that of a cartoon character. But now, people who have been telling Ruby the Knish Man stories can prove their case by referring to web-sites, see photos or read the anecdotes of his legions.
Even ten years before his death, Ruby's leathery face, exposed to forty years of harsh year-round outdoor elements and cooked by the constant heat coming up at him from his rolling oven, eventually resembled a knish. Maybe he was a cartoon character after all. And if he was...he was a super-
hero...well, a flawed super-hero.

My walk from elementary school to Hebrew school was four long city blocks and four short ones. I would arrive for my religious training tired and hungry. Ruby the Knish Man was a fixture out front. Steadfastly, he stood at his cart purveying his wares which consisted of two choices; a knish stuffed with potato or kasha. Maybe because the belly of his cart housed a burning charcoal hearth, there were no secondary items, no drinks, cookies, candy or gum...just knishes.

To us kids, a big part of Ruby's allure was his sense of humor. He liked to make fun of his limited menu and on many occasions he would respond to the question, "What do you have today?" By saying, "I got patata or kasha." And the customer would say, "I'll have kasha." And Ruby would say, "Only got patata."

Back then my problem was, by 3:30PM, I needed something to tide me over between lunch and dinner. I kept hearing how great the knishes were and how funny Ruby was. Since I was usually penniless, I was intimidated to even approached him...Ruby the Knish Man had become my personal Oz . Maybe it was the frugality of my parents or they didn't think their pre-pubescent punk could handle the responsibility of having some chump change in his pocket, (Ruby's knishes were 15c at the time) or...and I think this is the most accurate, I wasn't clever enough to ask my folks for money.
It wasn't until I finally had some cash that I even stepped up to the wagon. The cart as shown above had two items on top; a dented metal salt shaker from the year "1"and a crusty lipped, open jar of spicy brown deli mustard, (it should be noted that a raw wooden stick was used to spread the mustard on the knishes and the jar that was refilled by a commercial economy-sized container that was left to the weather everyday of the year).

The rest of the show was Ruby. In a combination of boredom and salesmanship, Ruby would call out certain funny phrases as well as some that were risque...still others were out and out dirty. When I consider the limited foul language I came in contact with (my mother's lady friend three doors down not withstanding), it felt like Ruby was letting us kids in on a taste of manhood.
My mother soon forbid me to eat Ruby's knishes. However, those were rebellious times for me and I refused to believe what my mother said about the cleanliness of his enterprise. Recently, I caught my mom off-guard and asked her what she remembered about Ruby. In no uncertain terms she told me the exact same things she told me over forty years ago..."His hands are filthy," "On cold days, he wipes his nose before 'handing' the knish over" and "he uses the mustard stick to clean-out under his fingernails."

I was about ten when I started noticing that mom was right. As many of you know, I'm easily skeeved therefore Ruby's health habits might be the very source of my food phobia, (yes I am a walking contradiction...I still love Sabrett's 'dirty-water' hot dogs). Even though I cut the dining with Ruby aspect out of my life at an early age, I remained a lifelong fan of his schtick. It should be noted that--I never swore-off knishes (sanitary ones) , I still love 'em...just never forget, Ruby's tasted the best.

Ruby was around way before I knew him. He was hawking knishes as early as the mid-fifties. His history suggests that he took over his father's operation. When I first knew of get around...he drove his pushcart, upright, in the trunk of his car. He was so noticeable in my native Canarsie that I was surprised to read how far beyond our borders he went. A one man gang...he was omnipresent...schools, parks, Canarsie Pier, seemingly everywhere in town. But in reality, he was everywhere else too!

According to his biography, he bought a van in 1969 and at that point he diversified his merchandise by adding; pretzels, soda and candy. I remember him using a bull-horn to announce that "RUBY THE KNISH MAN IS HERE" or "THE DINING ROOM IS NOW OPEN!" or "ONLY A FEW MORE HUNDRED (KNISHES) LEFT." He'd park that van and roll that same old cart down a homemade ramp (which makes me think, how did he ever get the cart in and out of the old car's trunk...I told you he was a legend).

In the summer when school was closed and city-people went on vacation...Ruby took his delectables to the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Like an ice-cream man with a bull-horn instead of a bell, he'd cruise the Borscht-Belt hotels and nearby bungalow colonies. I'd say this added exposure beyond Brooklyn, sped-up his worldwide appeal.

When you consider that the knish is an ethnic-specific food, my claim of Ruby's universality might seem exaggerated. So as a test, I name-dropped Ruby the Knish Man to fellow Brooklynite MSLEMMA. He grew up in predominately Italian Bensonhurst, on the other side of Brooklyn. He never heard of Ruby the Knish Man but when I described him he said, "Sounds like this knucklehead who sold pretzels and candy from a very old, beat-up blue van." It was Ruby. My friend went on to mention the unsanitary conditions his pretzel-guy worked under. He also pointed-out that by today's standards there would be no way he could legally drive a van with (what he perceived to be) an open fire lit in his cart.

Apparently Ruby, the ingenious businessman knew his demographics and de-emphasized the knishes in non-Jewish areas.

At one point in my life, I wondered how Ruby succeeded...selling his inexpensive goods for a few cents at a time. Maybe he was wholesaling ten-thousand knishes a day or taking numbers on the side, loan-sharking or selling drugs...but he wasn't. All accounts were he was just a hard working stiff who loved his family and in a strangely normal way...loved kids too.

I left Brooklyn in 1979. At some point before I left, Ruby would drop-off his old pushcart and a very old man would emerge from the van to sell knishes for friends and I made jokes about buying a Ruby subsidiary or a franchise territory.

After I left town, I understand that Ruby rented a store and called it "MOTHER'S KNISHES." So I guess after he dropped his "worker" off, he went back to the shop. Is it possible that Ruby, the man, the myth, the legend had lured his own father out of a "temporary" twenty-year retirement from the knish peddling game? It certainly is possible because I once got close enough to hear that old man squawk-out one of Ruby's famous lines, "Fresh hot knishes...homogenized, pasteurized and circumcised."


Anonymous said...

Ruby's rag-like knishes have never been duplicated as I have searched for them in my endless travels. I. K.

Anonymous said...

It just goes to can be a handsome hero and turn out to be a knish man. --- HJ said...

I did not know Ruby, but I did know Mr. Miller "The Knish Man" I lived in Brownsville, on Saratoga Ave & Bergen Street. I go back to the 1940's I think the knishes were 5 cents each, the knish wagon was exactly like the one shown here, it had the same salt shaker, I don't remember the mustard jar? I do remember, if you bought one knish Mr. Miller wrapped it with some kind of wax paper, for two knishes or more you got a brown paper bag. Mr. Miller covered so much territory in one day, you could not believe where you would find, I know he covered the PItkin Avenue I saw him there many times over the years.
I actually lived near him, I knew his son, I would see him walking his "knish cart' home many nights. Every one knew Mr. Miller. As the years past we moved to East Flatbush and I never saw Mr. Miller again, But I never forgot him or his knishes I bought dozen of them over the years. Mac Simmons - 10/5/2014