Life, love and lox

"The Sturgeon Queens" - Detailing the 100-year history of iconic Lower East Side eatery Russ and Daughters – is coming this week to the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival

RUSS AND DAUGHTERS still going strong on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (photo credit: JEFFREY BARY/FLICKR)
RUSS AND DAUGHTERS still going strong on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
(photo credit: JEFFREY BARY/FLICKR)
When filmmaker Julie Cohen was asked by New York public television to make a documentary called The Jews of New York, she knew she wanted to include a food angle – a family-owned Lower East Side eatery. What she didn’t realize was how difficult it would be to find one that was still around.
“It occurred to me that the way to make the Lower East side food story really work was to have a business that has been turned down from generation to generation,” she said. So she went looking for such a place, and came across perhaps the only one left: Russ and Daughters.
Now celebrating its 100th year anniversary, Russ and Daughters is an “appetizing” shop, selling smoked fish, herring, caviar and plenty of other fishy treats.
Founded as a pushcart on the crowded streets of downtown Manhattan by Joel Russ, a first-generation Jewish immigrant from Poland, the store is now being run by two of his great grandchildren, Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman.
After featuring the store and its history in her documentary, Cohen knew she wanted to go back and tell its story in more detail. So she did, and that film, known as The Sturgeon Queens, premiered earlier this year, and is being screened at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival Wednesday evening, followed by a discussion with Cohen, chef and writer Sherry Ansky and Haaretz food reporter Ronit Vered.
The film is a lively, funny look at the 100-year history of the store – particularly the family that kept it going, from the stern Joel Russ to his three pretty daughters, Hattie, Anne and Ida, his grandson, Mark Federman and his great grandchildren, Josh and Niki.
To narrate the film, Cohen sought out six long-term customers of the shop, who had memories of buying smoked fish there for at least 50 years.
“The current owners gave me a list of about 30 of their most loyal longtime customers,” Cohen recalls.
“My original thought was to call all 30 of them and to audition them over the phone, but I ended up booking the first six people I spoke to, because I loved them so much. They just had such great voices and I had such great conversations.”
The film also features some rather prominent fans of Russ and Daughters, from US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer. An eclectic group, their one binding characteristic is their love and devotion to the store’s fish products.
“These aren’t just people who are celebrities who happen to kind of like Russ and Daughters or have been in there occasionally,” said Cohen. “The five celebrity customers in the film are kind of obsessively loyal Russ and Daughters customers – it’s a store that tends to create that level of loyalty among some of its fans.”
New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin – who first wrote about the store in the 1970s – and celebrity chef Mario Batali round out the store’s famous fans.
But the real stars of the film are Hattie and Anne, who Cohen interviewed down in Florida in 2007. (Ida died in 2001, and Hattie died in April, just after the film premiered, at age 101.) They tell stories and jokes, they share their memories of gutting fish in the back of the shop and they even sing a little in Yiddish.
“They could never believe it was girls” behind the counter, recalled Hattie in the film. “Customers would stand from all parts – Philadelphia and Connecticut – and they would watch the way we carried on with our fishes!” When asked how she feels about her granddaughter Niki joining the family business, Anne had only one thing to say: “I’m shlepping nachas!” A combination of the long-time customers and the three generations of family members tell the century- long story of the shop, from its pushcart beginnings to its days run by the three daughters and their husbands all the way to the 21st century, where the store now has a website, a blog, a Twitter feed, and even a cafe.
Indeed, back in May, The Russ and Daughters Cafe opened just a few blocks away from the store, serving Jewish American classics like borscht, knishes, egg creams, halva ice cream and of course plenty of fish – from herring to lox to whitefish.
So after 100 years –when almost every other Jewish Lower East Side eatery has come and gone – what keeps Russ and Daughters going? “I think it’s a combination of really strong quality control, and the feeling they’ve been able to create in the store,” said Cohen. “I think they realized pretty early on that it wasn’t just about the food, it was about creating a certain environment. If you go in the store on any given day the customers and the people behind the counter are really going back and forth a lot... a lot of people know each other and people are running into each other; there’s a whole vibe there that I think for Jews of my parents’ generation really reminds them of what businesses used to be like back in the day.”
The Sturgeon Queens is being screened at The Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at The Jerusalem Cinematheque December 17 at 7 p.m. and December 18 at 7:15 p.m. On the 17th, a discussion with the filmmaker and others will follow the event, and a sandwich and pickled-fish stand with vodka shots will precede the event at 5 p.m.