Q&A with Joanne Oppenheim

Benny’s family owns a knishery and sells delicious round dumplings. Then the Tisch family opens a store across the street—selling square knishes—and Benny’s papa worries. So he lowers his prices! But Mr. Tisch does too. As each knishery tries to outdo the other, Benny helps his papa realize there’s room on Rivington Street for more than one knishery.

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We were lucky enough to sit down with author Joanne Oppenheim and talk about finding inspiration, celebrating shared history, and The Knish War on Rivington Street.

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

A. 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.

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

A. 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.

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Q. Was that hard? Changing it to prose?

A. 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.

Q. What kind of knishes do you prefer?

A. 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.

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

A. I’m sure I was channeling my grandfather, Nathan Fleischer. I have 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.   

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

A. 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 those in Jon Davis’ drawings. You can still go downtown and even have a knish!

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

A. 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.

Thanks, Joanne! Find out more about The Knish War on Rivington Street on our website.

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Q&A with Joanne Oppenheim

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