‘It’s Not Just Food’ | The Jewish Week | Food & Wine

‘It’s Not Just Food’

Jewish culture, memory and (oh, yeah) smoked fish at Russ & Daughters show.

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You don’t need to be Jewish to enjoy “Russ & Daughters: An Appetizing Story,” the newly opened exhibit at the American Jewish Historical Society (AJHS). But you might want to check with your doctor if you don’t leave salivating for a fresh bagel — or remembering family feasts past of lox, white fish, herring, cream cheese and other foods redolent of New York’s Lower East Side Jewish immigrant history.

No food is actually served at the exhibition (save for at the Sept. 12 opening), but the subject alone will no doubt stir up culinary and cultural memories that link one generation to another. It will also dramatize changes in the American Jewish community in New York and beyond since 1914, when Joel Russ originally opened his smoked fish business. At the time, it was one of many so-called “appetizing” stores that proliferated on the Lower East Side, the overcrowded lower- and working-class neighborhood that had absorbed large numbers of newly arrived East European Jews. Accommodating their customers’ Old World tastes, while also adhering to kashrut laws separating milk and meat, these New World stores sold only non-meat salads, dairy dishes and a varied assortment of mostly smoked or pickled fish.

The Russ daughters circa 1925

But as the decades passed, customers moved away, taste trends evolved, and appetizing stores became mostly artifacts of Jewish American cultural and culinary history. Russ & Daughters is a rarity in that it both thrives in its original Lower East Side neighborhood, and also continues to be owned and run by fourth-generation descendants of its founder Joel Russ. Those factors combine to make its archives — which AJHS acquired last year — a rich resource for documenting the century-long saga of the Jewish community the business has, and continues to, um, serve.    

“Food tells us about culture and history,” says AJHS executive director Annie Polland. The fact that the show is opening just weeks before the start of the High Holidays, when many people will be noshing on traditional appetizing foods, particularly as they break the fast of Yom Kippur, emphasizes that connection. “When you eat this food — it is not just food. It reminds you of an event, of people,” she says. “This is an opportunity to go deeper into those stories and chart the generations over time.”

The Russ daughters in 2000. Courtesy

As visitors enter the exhibit, a large sign instructs them to “take a number” from the machine dispenser — an experience that immediately immerses them into the experience of waiting for their turns at the counter. Adding to the atmosphere are the presence of café tables with menus whose entrees as easily induce hunger as memory — and cards on which visitors are encouraged to write down and share their “appetizing” food stories with others. Polland hopes people will provide answers to questions like, “What is the story that you want your family to know and to share about food and Jewish culture? What makes the memory meaningful?” 

Several elements make the story of Russ & Daughters meaningful, says Polland. The store itself is a “vessel of history,” she contends, that is grounded not just in ethnic cultural history, but in business, economic and feminist history as well. Numerous photos, texts, audio clips and artifacts chronicle those histories, with each exhibit section demarcated by an advertisement-worthy photo of an over-stuffed bagel with all the fixings.   

The Russ family saga began, we learn, when 21-year-old Joel Russ arrived in New York from Galicia in 1907 and immediately went to work for his older sister Channah Ebbin, who owned and ran a herring stand on Hester Street. It was an enterprise that she needed to succeed in order to make a living for herself and her eight children — and that would also allow her husband to study Talmud all day.

In 1914, by then married and starting to raise a family, Joel Russ was able to open his own store, “J. Russ Cut Rate Appetizing,” on Orchard Street, moving it to Houston Street in 1920. It was in 1935 that he changed the store’s name to “Russ & Daughters.” Although many businesses typically added “& Sons” to the family business name, “from what we can tell this is the first store in New York that puts ‘and daughters’ in the name,” says Polland. It had long been common for daughters and wives to work in family businesses, but in addition to publicly acknowledging the contributions of his daughters Hattie, Ida and Anne in the store’s name, says Polland, Joel Russ was also “unique in actually making them partners, and while he was still alive.” 

Joel was before his time in his equal inclusion of his daughters in the family business. Yet at the same time, Polland points out, when it came to making a living, “They didn’t have a choice. This was their business,” their family business. “He gave birth to children to fullfill his business needs,” his daughter Anne Russ Federman is quoted as saying in the exhibit. By the 1970s, with carrying on the family business no longer an expectation for the next generation, and the sisters and their spouses ready to retire, the business dynasty seemed to be approaching its end.

Yiddish theater posters evoke the Golden Age of Second Avenue

But in 1978, Anne’s son Mark Russ Federman became dissatisfied with his law career, and traded in the legal profession to run the business — the third generation to helm the enterprise. He and his wife Maria steered the business for the next 30 years. In 2009, they sold it to the fourth generation — their daughter Niki Russ Federman and nephew Josh Russ Tupper. Together, the two of them, both in their early 40s, have expanded the business, which now has outlets on Orchard Street, at The Jewish Museum, the Brooklyn Navy Yard and online.

Nina Gold, a Russ granddaughter, in front of a candy display at the shop.

Rooted in the working-class Jewish immigrant community of the Lower East Side, it’s a success story that makes for a compelling family business, a strong cultural case history and a tantalizing museum exhibit. And it all began — and continues —with a taste of Yiddishkeit.

“Russ & Daughters: An Appetizing Story” opens Sept. 12 and runs through Jan. 31, 2020 at the American Jewish Historical Society, 15 W. 16th St., ajhs.org.

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