Ken Levitt, president of Jewish Seniors Alliance, and Leah Deslauriers, coordinator of JCC Seniors and L’Chaim Adult Day Centre. (photo by Binny Goldman)
On Jan. 25, a treat awaited all who attended the screening at the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver of filmmaker Julie Cohen’s The Sturgeon Queens, the story of New York City’s legendary fish store (and restaurant) Russ and Daughters.
The documentary was presented by the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver in partnership with L’Chaim Adult Day Centre, and was the second session of the 2016/2017 JSA Snider Foundation Empowerment Series. With the theme of Nourishing Tradition: Food, the Doorway to our Culture, this year’s series is being co-hosted with the Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia.
JSA president Ken Levitt welcomed the crowd with a groissen dank, todah rabah, big thank you to all involved, which set the tone and taam (taste) for what was to follow. Michael Schwartz, coordinator of programs and development of the JMABC, shared the news that the museum will soon be starting a Supper Club, which will take place at the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture, where the museum resides. He noted the important role that food plays in keeping traditions alive, in passing them on to future generations.
Case in point is Russ and Daughters. Four generations have not only kept the appetizer shop alive – selling smoked fish, lox, herring and sturgeon – but grown it into a restaurant, as well. Stan Goldman introduced the film on behalf of JCC Seniors. He said it was at Russ and Daughters that he tasted smoked fish for the very first time.
According to the film, Cohen first discovered the renowned fish store in 2007. Upon realizing that “the daughters,” sisters Hattie (Russ Gold) and Anne (Russ Federman), were still alive, Cohen flew to Florida to interview them. The Sturgeon Queens is a feel-good documentary about the start of the shop, which Joel Russ founded in 1914. Russ had come to New York at age 21 and, starting in 1907, used a pushcart to sell his herring. He went on to sell the fish using a horse and wagon, before finally opening his store. He enlisted his daughters – who were in their early teens at the time – to help him. The sisters became full-time workers and eventually partners with their father in the business.
Russ’s addition of “and Daughters” to the name of the shop was unusual for those years. Ruth Bader Ginsburg (associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) states in the film that this move made her very happy, seeing this was an enterprise where daughters counted.
The Lower East Side, where Russ and Daughters has always been located, was the area in which immigrants arriving in New York first settled. And fish is what they ate – it was healthy and, more importantly, relatively inexpensive, as they struggled to make their way. Now, it is eaten not only because of its taste, but because it connects many to their ancestors; it is a comfort, or “emotion,” food, whose appeal goes beyond taste. Russ and Daughters customers sense this as they enter the shop, which seems to offer this same feeling.
The documentary was made to celebrate 100 years of Russ and Daughters, which survived many turbulent times, including the 1970s and 1980s, when things were most dire for them economically. The family still strives to maintain the traditions, quality and history of the shop, working to enrich the lives of their customers, who not only come to buy the food, but to linger and chat.
Nicki Russ Federman, who runs the establishment now, along with Josh Russ Tupper, said there was never anything glamourous about the store, that it was just hard work, but that Hattie and Anne had set the stage for their grandchildren to take over. Russ Federman was a health professional and Russ Tupper a lawyer, but they decided, after almost a decade away from the store, to return and make sure that Russ and Daughters continued.
Herman Vargas, who has been with the shop for almost 30 years now, is fluent in Yiddish and feels part of the family. The New Yorkers who frequent the shop also feel part of something, that they are connected to a living piece of the city’s history – some of the film is even narrated by several seniors who were gathered together by Cohen. Molly Picon, Zero Mostel and Morley Safer are just a few of the famous people who have come to the shop according to the documentary.
“It was powerful to watch the expression on my grandmother’s face as she watched the movie – she was watching her life affirmed,” says Nicki Russ Federman in the film. On Jan. 25, as the audience at the JCC watched, we, too, felt just how entwined are food, family, love and tradition.
When the JSA’s Shanie Levin thanked all those who made the screening possible, she asked if the film had been enjoyed and was greeted by a huge round of applause. Over coffee, tea and a nosh, comments overheard were “It warmed my heart!” and “It made me happy to be Jewish.”
The next session of the Empowerment Series takes place March 8, 11:30 a.m., at the Unitarian Centre and will highlight Israeli cuisine. For more information about it or the JSA, call Rita Propp at 604-732-1555, email [email protected] or visit jsalliance.org.
Binny Goldman is a member of the Jewish Seniors Alliance of Greater Vancouver board.