On National Rugelach Day, A Look Into the History of Rugelach in NYC – Untapped New York

Posted By on May 2, 2022

This year and beyond, April 29 is National Rugelach Day, honoring the popular Jewish confection. Originating in Poland nearly four centuries ago, rugelach are today found in most Israeli cafes and bakeries, shaped in the form of a crescent by rolling a triangle of dough around a filling. This day can be attributed to Harlem bakery Lee Lees Baked Goods, the owner of which, Alvin Lee Smalls, successfully reached out to the National Day Archives in March to secure a special day for the treat the store has baked for over 50 years.

Rugelach is something that has always been near and dear to my heart, so I thought why not recognize and celebrate such a special little confection with the whole world, Lee said. This day has been designated for everyone to celebrate and enjoy the delight of rugelach wherever you are!

Lee Lees was established in 1988 after Lee became one of the first in the neighborhood to have an expansive selection of traditional Eastern European pastries, exposing those in the community to centuries of Jewish and Eastern European history through food. Lee, originally from South Carolina, first fell in love with rugelach after moving to New York in the early 1960s. To honor the very first National Rugelach Day, Lee Lees is throwing an all-day celebration to encourage rugelach lovers and rugelach newbies to try the much-loved dessert.

Though, rugelach has been around New York for decades prior, appearing at bakeries around the Lower East Side, the Upper West Side, the Upper East Side, and parts of Brooklyn in the late 1800s and early 1900s. When particularly Ashkenazi Jews immigrated to the U.S. through Ellis Island, Jewish bakeries popped up alongside delis and appetizing stores all over the city, preparing freshly baked breads, cakes, and fruit-filled pastries.

To keep within kosher laws, most bakeries only served dairy products and could only be open at most six days a week. Jewish bakeries were staples of each community with a large Jewish population, though as with most Jewish-owned food businesses, they dwindled following World War II, and only a few remain today. Most New Yorkers have heard of Yonah Schimmel, one of the long-standing Jewish bakeries open since the 1890s on East Houston Street. Though primarily known for knishes, Yonah Schimmel has kept sweet Jewish culinary traditions alive with options like cherry cheese and apple strudel knishes, alongside egg creams.

Most places in New York City serving up rugelach today are relatively new, though one long-standing spot is Kossars Bagels & Bialys, open for over 85 years (and at the Grand Street location since 1960). Isadore Mirsky andMorris Kossar first founded Mirsky and Kossars Bakery at 22 RidgeStreet on the Lower East Side in 1936. In 1953, Morris Kossar bought out his partner,after which the store was renamed Kossars Bialys. Though bialys are their specialty, Kossars also offers assorted rugelach, including a cinnamon variety.

Russ & Daughters, the famed appetizing store, only started baking its own rugelach in 2017 after the company formerly outsourced production. Russ & Daughters serves up a traditional raspberry version with a sweet-tart jam, raisins, and currants. In 1907, Joel Russ immigrated from Strzyzow in modern-day Poland, after which he sold schmaltz herring out of a barrel on theLower East Side. It took his first seven years to transition to a pushcart operation, a horse and wagon, and ultimately a brick and mortar store on Orchard Street. In 1920, he moved the store to its current home of 179 East Houston Street. His daughters Hattie, Ida, and Anne were involved in the business from a young age, and in 1935 Russ changed the name to include & Daughters, controversially making it the first business in the country with that included.

Orwashers, known for its raspberry and apricot varieties, has also been around for over a century, founded in 1916 by a Hungarian immigrant family as a small storefront on the Upper East Side. The bakery catered to the neighborhoods Jewish population with traditional rye, black, and grain breads. Since 2018, Orwashers is run by Keith Cohen and his team with additional locations in Lincoln Square and the Upper West Side.

On the newer side is Breads Bakery, opened in 2013 with all sorts of baked goods but with a particular emphasis on old-school Jewish New York staples. Breads was among the bakeries to popularize babka with Nutella and dark chocolate, as well as many types of challah. But its chocolate rugelach with an ultra-thin pastry is also a winner.

Out in Brooklyn, Shelskys was opened in 2011 as an appetizing store and deli with a bakery as well. At its locations, Shelskys offers some hard-to-find types like chocolate lingonberry, apricot walnut, and clementine and ginger. Also in Brooklyn are a handful of kosher favorites in Orthodox neighborhoods like Midwood, whose residents frequent Isaacs Bake Shop and Kaffs Bakery, and South Williamsburg, known for Oneg Heimishe Bakery.

Next, learn about the History of the Appetizing Store in NYC!

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On National Rugelach Day, A Look Into the History of Rugelach in NYC - Untapped New York

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