FEMILY- a very special guest post

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The story goes: Bubbe and Zayde were new to Birmingham when Riva and Isaac came to town.  Zayde heard Riva’s maiden name was Schuster and arranged to meet at the Jewish Community Center. “He said he’s wearing a yellow shirt and I said I had white hair!” Riva said. “And I found a beautiful femily!”

Turns out the Hirschs are not related to our Schusters. But after surviving the Holocaust with few living blood relatives, makeshift familial attachments to other survivors was important for both couples. Riva and Bubbe kvelled and kvetched like sisters.



The letter below was written by my cousin Rebecca several years ago following the first Yom Kippur after Bubbe died. As we ate Riva’s knishes, so similar but different than the ones Bubbe fed us, we thought of Bubbe. We missed her schtink of fried onions and big hugs.  Last week, we finally got around to cooking with Riva. Bubbe was definitely “proud on us.”



** Click the play button for for short sounds of our knish adventure. ++ Be sure to scroll all the way to the recipe for a step-by-step sound guide on mixing, kneading and folding knishes.

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Dear Esther and Shaina,

There is no tie that holds my family closer together than our love of food. Whether we are the ones that spend hours upon hours in the kitchen, or show up just in time to get that hot out of the oven knish, we simply love food. This love comes out even when we fast during Yom Kippur.

“Beckelah, did you try mine knishes? Dey different from Mamala’s. I put mine mit dill.” Those words mean one thing: it’s time to break the fast.

The Schuster-Shealy fam has been breaking the fast with our close friends: The Hirsch-Perlstein fam for almost 30 years. Or as their grandmother Riva likes to say “Of course you come break the fast mit us, ve are family!”

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At each and every break fast, Riva is the one to greet you at the door and in the most loving way start demanding: “come, zit, eat mamaleh. You need to eat. Here come eat mine knishes.” Around the age of 7, I’m pretty sure I was able to respond with “yeah I know, they are different than Bubbe’s—you make them with dill.”

Despite the differences in the recipe, no knish will ever be as satisfying to me as those of my Bubbe or of Riva. As my dad likes to say “this is the food of our homeland.” The simplicity yet the complexity of potato mixed with garlic and honions (onions), wrapped up in an hoily (oily) dough and baked until golden perfection was and is such a formidable part of my childhood. I loved when my mom would get the phone call that it was time to come to Bubbe’s to pick up the knishes. And after stuffing our faces with them by the dozen, Bubbe would, without fail, ask “Tell me kids are dey edible?”

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6 hands, 1 knish

Sometimes, I was even lucky enough to partake in the process of making the knishes. Nothing was more exciting than knish making time—when Bubbe would make 100s upon 100s of knishes.

Here are some of the important rules and memories from the times I spent “working” in Bubbe’s kitchen:

  • No fressing, no lessing, no shmecking (if you ever made it to my Bubbe’s house, you know about this sign)
  • You just need a little bit of hoil (translation: Bubbe’s version of a little bit of oil equaled about a gallon of it per batch of dough)
  • Speaking of dough: “You can use dis dough for anyting—kreplach, strudel, blintzes, knishes, anyting you want.”
  • Where is your shmata? (Head covering)
  • Mine Rebecelah, go rest, you young, I don’t want you to be tired. Let Bubbe make you someting to eat. You da baby of da family and you need to rest.

Sometimes, sometimes, if I was really lucky, I was deemed the brown paper bag girl. I had the critical role of unfolding brown grocery bags to place the finished knish on to soak up any hoil. After laying out a bag or two, I had to go back to resting on the couch and eating in case I was tired or hungry. That’s one thing I learned for sure—there was no one more important to Bubbe than her grandchildren. And she would be damned if anyone did anything to make our lives even the slightest bit difficult. Everything she did spoke unconditional love for “her seven grandchildren. Dey are the hair dat I breathe.”

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While we often joke about her crazy kitchen routines, her hour long monologues about her grandchildren, and so many other “Bubbisms,” I am so thankful to have had a grandmother in my life who demonstrated each and every day what it looks like to love another person unconditionally. She was our biggest fan and protector, and we knew it with every bite of that knish that she spent hours making just right.


While Bubbe is no longer with us today, I know she is just as happy watching three of her grandchildren enjoying her best friend Riva’s knishes together just the other week at break fast. Whenever I get to spend time with my siblings and cousins, I smile just thinking of how Bubbe is kvelling. Especially when we are eating, because heaven forbid “you lost veight.”




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Riva’s Knishes


Potato filling

  • 8 potatoes
  • 1 tbs margarine
  • two onions, finely chopped.
  • salt to taste
  • black pepper to taste

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Peel and boil potatoes in salter water until soft. In saucepan, melt margarine and sautee onions until translucent. In large bowl, mash potatoes with onions, salt and pepper until soft. NO CHUNKS! Use a stick blender if you have one (different from bubbe’s, Riva’s knish filling is smooth and fluffy).


  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup oil
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp vinegar
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm water
  • 2 cups all purpose flour
  • pinch of salt

Beat one egg in large bowl. Add oil, baking soda and lukewarm water in that order. Mix well. Add two cups flour and a pinch of salt and knead into dough.

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Assembly instructions:

Preheat over to 350 and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Separate dough into three parts and roll into pickle/hot dog shaped logs. Cover with towel to keep moist.

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Roll one section of dough into elongated oval shape on floured surface. Brush dough with melted margarine. Cut dough in half. Pile a thick 1/2 inch of potato mixture onto each cut of dough. Stretch dough over the filling and press edges together.

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After edges are tucked in and there are no holes, flip over onto baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Again, brush top of dough with margarine and generously sprinkle will dried dill. Bake for 35 minutes until top is golden. Once cool, slice into two inch pieces for individual knishes. Serve as forshpeiz or hearty nosh in between meals.


Riva likes to make potato salad out of leftover potato filling. She mixes it with mayo and hardboiled eggs. She’s definitely from the old country.

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