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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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