Book Review: 100 years of lox

Mark Russ Federman visits the Jerusalem International Book Fair to discuss his memoir ‘Russ and Daughters’ – a tale of the family business.

Mark Russ Federman  (photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
Mark Russ Federman
(photo credit: AMY SPIRO)
One hundred never looked this good. As iconic Lower East Side shop Russ and Daughters celebrates more than a century in operation, it has never been more popular.
Indeed, it opened up a cafe last May, had a documentary film about it air on US public television in December, and just last month was honored by the New York State Senate for its 100th anniversary.
Mark Russ Federman, the former proprietor of the herring, caviar, lox and all-things-smoked-fish shop, is in Israel to appear at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, where he will discuss the history of the store and his 2013 book Russ and Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House that Herring Built.
Federman will appear at the fair on February 12 in conversation with food writer and cookbook author Janna Gur, discussing “The Jewish kitchen: From herring to shakshuka.”
After decades behind the counter, Federman, now 70, turned the store over in 2009 to the fourth generation of Russes: his daughter Niki and nephew Josh.
Faced with impending retirement, he did the next logical thing: Write a book.
“I had spent most of my adult life behind the counter being Mr. Russ,” recalled Federman. “When it was clear that I was gonna turn the business over to the next generation, it became clear to me that I was no longer going to be Mr. Russ. And that after teaching them what they needed to know – a good fish from a bad fish, and a good customer from a bad customer – I would have to step out.”
Intended as a leisurely retirement project to pass his now much freer time, Federman soon realized the story of his family and their fish shop was one that would find a wide audience.
“Our story is totally Jewish, but it’s an immigrant story in America and in New York – and the story is the same for Chinese, Jewish, Dominican. What do you do when you get to this country and you don’t have two nickels to rub together? How do you survive, how do you make things better and what do you give up of your own language, culture and upbringing?” Federman spent three years writing the book, reaching back into his own memories, researching the family and interviewing his mother and aunt – then the two remaining “daughters” of Russ and Daughters. Today Mark’s mother, Ann Russ Federman, 93, is the last of the sisters still alive.
His grandfather, Joel Russ, went to America in 1907 from Galicia, with little more than the clothes on his back.
“They came out of poverty and pestilence and pogroms, they came to America to leave it all behind and create a better life for their family,” said Federman. “ And a lot of them just didn’t want to talk about [their history].”
So Federman had to gather most of his information from the sisters, who had long retired to the golden land of Florida. But it wasn’t always easy extracting the family history.
“If I went to my mother and asked her something, she’d usually say: ‘What are you asking me for, go ask your aunt, she’s older, she was around longer, she remembers better,’” Federman recounted. “And my aunt would say, ‘What are you asking me for, go ask your mother, she’s younger, she remembers better.’” But Federman said he quickly learned the right way to acquire information.
“You had to hit the right chord to get them to talk,” he explained. “You mention a customer and they could go through what that customer looked like and what they ordered, and that would lead them some place else. They didn’t like it when I’d ask them a question directly and they couldn’t remember.”
After 31 years running the place and years before that hanging around the store, Federman now enjoys coming and going as he pleases – but he can’t keep himself away for too long.
“I do spend a lot of time there because I find that need to be connected with my business, because there are relationships there that are important to me,” he said. “It was my world – it was my business world, but it was my personal and social world as well.” While he spent years being considered “the kid” around the store, now he returns and “I’ve become the old-timer.”
And he recognizes as much as anyone how much the store and the scenery have changed since his grandfather started selling herring from his first pushcart.
“We were a Jewish family in a Jewish neighborhood selling Jewish food to Jewish customers,” Federman said. “Now, 100 years later, just about every part of that has changed.”
With the once-bustling Jewish Lower East Side now just a memory, today Russ and Daughters is one of the few immigrant businesses still around. What kept them in business for 100 years – and counting? “First of all, it’s about somebody in the next generation taking over so your name stays on the door,” noted Federman. “It’s said that the first generation founds the business, the second generation builds it and the third generation kills it!” As the third generation, he said, he operated under the fear of being the one to kill it.
And as he turned over the business to the fourth generation, Federman observed the deep irony that accompanied its longevity. After all, the last thing Joel Russ would have wanted was to see his descendants still toiling away behind the counter of a fish shop.
“What does every Jewish parent want – a doctor or a lawyer,” said Federman. “Their first desire was [that we would earn] a college degree and that none of us would have to work at the store, and stand on our feet and wait on the toughest customers in the world and come home grouchy and smelling fishy.”
Federman actually did attain a law degree, and practiced as a lawyer for several years. But when it came time for his parents to retire, “I’m the only one who stepped in and said, ‘I’ll come in and help you.’ Why did I do that? I can’t tell you; there’s something intangible that drew me back.”
Today, Federman jokes that he’s “the only Jewish father who’s upset his son wanted to be a doctor.” But while his eldest, Noah, is a pediatric oncologist in Los Angeles, his daughter has taken her place behind the Russ and Daughters counter – and Federman couldn’t be prouder.
Mark Russ Federman will appear at the Jerusalem Cinematheque on February 12 at 12 p.m. to discuss “The Jewish Kitchen.” For more information, visit