One hundred years ago, when Joel Russ opened his pickled-herring shop on New York’s Lower East Side, he had no great aspirations aside from making a living.
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And when he brought his three daughters into the business, it wasn’t to make a statement about equal opportunity for women. Daughters were all he had, and putting them behind the counter was simply cheaper than paying hired help.
Back in those days, most of his customers, like himself, were poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe whose idea of splurging was spending a few cents on a pickled fish wrapped in newspaper.
But boy have times changed, as “The Sturgeon Queens,” Julie Cohen’s new film about this Jewish New York institution, aptly notes.
Russ & Daughters, by now a foodie mecca frequented by the rich and famous, has branched out from lox and herring, offering delicacies such as caviar and Irish organic smoked salmon. Its Super Heebster sandwich (whitefish and baked-salmon salad with horseradish dill cream cheese and wasabi flying fish roe on a bagel) has even won accolades from New York’s Time Out magazine.
Joel Russ’ great-grandchildren, now in charge, work with a full-time publicist and social-media director who goes by the name Yenta. And as a side business, they host sold-out “herring pairing” evenings (at $60 a head).
Despite these changes, Russ & Daughters has not lost its heimisch, mom-and-pop touch, as the film cogently makes the case. The fact that the business has stayed in the same place and the same family all these years clearly has a lot to do with that.
Poised to hold its Israeli premiere at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, with screenings set for December 17 and 18, “The Sturgeon Queens” chronicles the history of this New York establishment from its pushcart beginnings to the very recent addition of a trendy sit-down café just a few blocks away. The 52-minute film is an offshoot of a previous documentary, “The Jews of New York,” which Cohen produced for PBS.
A classic Jewish feel-good story, “The Sturgeon Queens” draws on a wide range of voices. There are Joel Russ’ surviving daughters: 100-year-old Hattie and 92-year-old Anne – two delightful, witty characters who were gutting fish before they could see over the counter.
There is Anne’s son Mark, who ran the business for many years and did what some considered unthinkable in the Jewish food business back in the day: He put a non-Jew behind the counter. (Dominican-born Herman Vargas, eventually promoted to manager, figured out that the way to win over Jewish customers was to speak to them in Yiddish.)
There are five long-time customers of Russ & Daughters, among them an Auschwitz survivor and a former dancer. In the film they serve as narrators, reciting passages on the history of the place while sitting around a table seder-style.
And then there are all the celebrity customers – Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, TV chef Mario Batali, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, legendary New York writer Calvin Trillin and “60 Minutes” correspondent Morley Safer – who don’t stop kvelling about the food.
“On my deathbed, I’ll probably ask for some of their pickled herring,” Safer remarks.
For Joel Russ and the “Sturgeon Queens,” as he affectionately referred to his daughters, working in the business wasn’t a matter of choice but necessity. That was not the case, however, for the next generations.
Anne’s son Mark had graduated from Georgetown Law School and was all set to launch a career as an attorney before the family business beckoned. Before calling it quits many years later, he made sure the place stayed in good hands, passing it on to his daughter Niki and nephew Josh, both college graduates with degrees in completely unrelated fields.
Working in the specialty food business these days is “sexy,” explains Niki, not just plain old hard work like it was in her grandmother’s time.
Asked to share her thoughts about her granddaughter’s career decision, Anne resorts to Yiddish to express that special kind of pride. “I’m shepping nachas,” she says.