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‘Mamma’s Knishes’ tells saga of Polish Jews’ lives

By Michele Lea Biaso

Danbury native David Wise performs as “Mrs. Grabel” in “Momma’s Knishes,” an interactive play he stages in people’s homes.
The News-Times/Wendy Carlson
Danbury native David Wise performs as “Mrs. Grabel” in “Momma’s Knishes,” an interactive play he stages in people’s homes.
It’s 1938 in Brooklyn, N.Y., and you are 13 years old. You are visiting your classmate Mollie Grabel’s house, making knishes with her mother.

As you help her roll the dough, Mrs. Grabel talks about her family and the hardships they have faced since coming to America from Poland.

With a thick Yiddish accent, Mrs. Grabel talks about graduating from high school night classes in America at the age of 31, about her sister wanting to leave an abusive husband, and trying to help her mother and brother come to America.

As the kitchen fills up with the smell of potatoes and onions cooking, you watch and listen as Mrs. Grabel talks passionately about her family. It’s hard to tell that Mrs. Grabel is actually a 25-year-old-man and you are not a 13-year-old in a pre-World War II Brooklyn kitchen.

"Momma’s Knishes” is an interactive play put on in people’s homes where the audience not only get a role but a delicious meal. David Wise, a former Danbury resident, has created this one-man play and brings it right into your kitchen.

Knishes are a Jewish delicacy of baked or deep fried packets of dough most commonly stuffed with potato, or sometimes, assorted meats or vegetables. Mrs. Grabel’s knishes are delicious.

Wise, a 1995 Danbury High School graduate, is the son of Douglas and Marian Wise of Danbury. His show is put on in the host’s kitchen for 10 to 15 of their friends, who become part of the play from the beginning as Mrs. Grabel, modeled after Wise’s great-grandmother, instructs them to wash their hands.

The host plays 13-year-old Mollie, Mrs. Grabel’s daughter, and the audience become her young classmates.

As they help her roll the dough and fill it with the potato mixture, Mrs. Grabel talks about her six children and how they don’t help her in the kitchen.

She shares an essay that she was assigned to write for the class about what she would put in a time capsule that would not be opened for 5,000 years.

Mrs. Grabel says she would like to put a picture of her entire family in there, but sadly cannot because her mother and brother are still in Poland and have not met her children.

So, Mrs. Grabel says she would like to put a knish in the time capsule because they represent tradition in her family. She learned it from her mother and now makes them for her children.

There is only one problem, Mrs. Grabel said.

"Things in a time capsule are supposed to last for 5,000 years, and in my kitchen, knishes don’t last for more than 5 minutes,” she said.

The play developed when Wise went on a cruise to celebrate his grandmother’s 80th birthday. After hearing stories from both of his grandmothers, Wise took a little personal history from each of them, and, adding in a little bit of fiction, created a biographical drama based on his family’s history.

The woman Wise plays in his one-man show is mostly based on his great-grandmother, Sylvia Tork, who lived from 1895 to 1984. She was a woman, he said, who was known for her knishes.

He was only seven when she died, but he can remember visiting her apartment in Brooklyn as a child.

At the end of the play, Wise, as Mrs. Grabel, reads a letter from Mrs. Grabel’s mother saying she is not going to make it to America. The letter is an exact copy of one that was sent to his great-grandmother from her mother. Wise said it is assumed within his family that the Polish Jews perished in the Holocaust.

Before he gets into costume, Wise looks like a clean-cut man with short brown hair, dressed in khakis.

In costume, he wears an apron over a faded dress, blue Mary Janes, no makeup, and a plain reddish brown wig pulled back into a bun, and he looks the part of an immigrant mother in 1938.

Wise studied English and theater at the University of Pennsylvania. He said he was always interested in doing a performance in unconventional spaces.

"I like that I can transport people’s kitchens, and everyone in them, to a different time,” he said.

Cindy NeJame, Wise’s drama teacher at Danbury High School, said he did a wonderful job developing the character. She attended a recent performance in Danbury.

"It is really interesting to see how my former students progress,” she said.

Wise, who now lives in Philadelphia, has performed "Mamma’s Knishes,” at least 25 times since last summer. In May, he will be performing it for the first time for his two grandmothers, Harriet Wise, 81, and Mildred Tepper, 86, in Florida.

He said one of the toughest things about his performances are when unexpected things happen. During one show, the host’s roommate came home and was surprised to find a play was going on in his kitchen.

Instead of interrupting the flow of the performance, Wise, playing Mrs. Grabel, brought the confused roommate into the play by telling the audience he was one of her sons.

"He was a little dazed but he played right along,” Wise said.

A performance of "Momma’s Knishes” for up to 15 people is $400 on Mondays to Thursdays, and $500 Fridays to Sundays. For information, or to book a show, call (215) 546-1852 or visit

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