A Smelly but Joyful Celebration of N.Y.'s Jewish Heritage

A visit to a 100-year-old specialty foods store on the Lower East Side activates a sense memory that reminds one of generations - and smoked fish - of yore.

The final weeks of the U.S. Supreme Court term ending last October were arguably the most momentous in the court’s recent history, with a series of major rulings on gay marriage, affirmative action and voting rights. So imagine my surprise when I received a letter at that time from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, accepting my request to interview her about lox and pickled herring.

But as I continued to work on my documentary, "The Sturgeon Queens" – on the story of the 100-year-old “appetizing” store Russ & Daughters, on New York's Lower East Side – I came to understand why she decided to participate. Like everyone I spoke to for the film, Justice Ginsburg feels a connection to the place that goes far beyond smoked fish.

She told me how her mother used to bring her to the crowded, noisy streets around Russ & Daughters – Orchard, Hester, Rivington – as a pointed reminder of the family’s origins.

“As a child, I didn’t love the Lower East Side,” Ginsburg acknowledged. “It was sort of an embarrassment.” The neighborhood constituted a sort of a proxy, of course; it was her Jewish immigrant roots she was ashamed of. But over time, the feeling shifted from unspoken shame to abiding pride.

“When I eat the food from Russ & Daughters it makes me think of the very best in the Jewish tradition,” she added.

In this narrow storefront on Houston Street, the smells, tastes, even sounds (a boisterous blend of kibitzing and kvetching) activate a sense memory that brings us back to the generations who lived in the tenements there, and before that, in shtetls. It’s part of a collective history that our parents and grandparents may well have wanted to forget. But now, many of us are ready to remember.

That’s probably the reason Shabbat-morning customers seem perfectly happy to be crammed between the store’s counters, tight as herrings in a barrel. And the reason even a once-a-year-on-Kol-Nidre Jew like me can get a little teary tasting a sample offered by one of the countermen.

In a sense, it’s strange that Russ & Daughters food should evoke any memories at all. Their herring bears little resemblance to the herring I grew up with, the kind that came out of a jar in one big, salty clump – barely recognizable as fish, really. More like Jewish Spam.

Still, as soon as the Russes’ fresher, creamier version hits my tongue, I’m time-traveling back to the dairy lunches in Grammy and Grampy’s two-family house on Long Island, where the faux Louis XIV furniture was painted a hideous blue.

There was a four-generation family photo hanging on the wall there that I’d forgotten for decades. But as representatives of the three surviving generations of the Russ family told me stories of the family patriarch, Joel Russ – who came from Austria-Hungary with only the schmattes on his back and relentlessly prodded his children and grandchildren toward education, assimilation and success – the image of that photo came back to me.

My dad, George, is positioned front and center, an all-American toddler who would grow up to be a lawyer (and a bit of a big macher, at that). My grandfather Leonard, a newspaper reporter and the first in the family to go to college, is smiling and dapper in his three-piece suit and pocket square. My great-grandfather Jacob Moses, a bookkeeper in the diamond district for whom I was named, looks a little stiff in his fancy clothes, his hands clasped in front of him.

Over on the left sits my great-great grandfather, staring at the camera, pale and bewildered, so skinny he looks as if his suit might slide right off him. Sadly, no one in the family today can remember his name or profession. With his supersized, Old World yarmulke and a white beard down his chest, he clearly belongs to whatever rundown Russian shtetl he came from, not to New York or Washington, D.C. or Los Angeles, where his family would eventually grow and thrive. It’s almost inconceivable that I’m related to this guy. Aside from a shared affinity for herring, we’d probably have nothing in common.

But staring at that image of my zayde’s zayde, which shares the screen with my name in the closing credits of my film, I feel something powerful. It took some time to put my finger on exactly what that feeling was.

When I traveled to Florida (where else?) to interview Anne Russ Federman and Hattie Russ Gold – Joel Russ’ daughters, from whom Russ & Daughters got its name – they had plenty of great stories to tell from their days picking fish out of barrels. What they wanted to talk about most, though, was the decision by Anne’s educated, accomplished grandchildren Niki and Josh to join the family business: the fourth generation of Russes to own and run the store. The women kvelled about everything from Josh’s chemical engineering degree to Niki’s ability to slice lox so thin that you can read The New York Times through it.

Anne and Hattie are impressed by how the current generation has brought the store into the digital age with online orders and a Twitter feed (even if the interviewees were not exactly sure what that means). And they are excited about the new café Niki and Josh are opening next month on Orchard Street, to celebrate Russ & Daughters’ centennial.

“I’m shepping nachas,” Anne declared. “Do you know what that means?” I didn’t, so she explained. Literally translated as “scooping blessings,” it’s an idiom for bursting with pride. According to the Yiddish-English dictionaries, it generally refers to pride in one’s children or grandchildren. But it also describes how I feel about my unnamed great-great grandfather – and his wife. Their courage when heading to a completely unknown future in America, their hard work (whatever it was great-great Grandpa Cohen did) and their focus on the children’s education surely had more bearing on what my life is today than anything else.

Whatever reflexive desire my grandparents or parents might have had to distance themselves from their poverty -tricken, probably illiterate, undoubtedly smelly ancestors – I’m long past it. Stand on the un-fancy but sparkling clean tile floor at Russ & Daughters, where the herring now comes in a mustard or curry sauce, and you’ll feel it too. For the Russes or the Ginsburgs or the Cohens (throw in the Levines and the Feinsteins while we’re at it), the nachas flows both ways.

The writer is a filmmaker who runs BetterThanFiction Productions in New York. Her documentary "The Sturgeon Queens" is screening across the U.S. and will appear at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival later this year.

Courtesy of BetterThanFiction Productions