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New Film Tells the Story of New York’s Russ & Daughters

‘The Sturgeon Queens’ documents 100 years of the iconic appetizing shop

Leah Koenig
February 05, 2014
Hattie Russ.(The Russ Family)
Hattie Russ.(The Russ Family)

What more is there to say about Russ & Daughters, the family-owned appetizing store and Jewish food landmark that has peddled herring, smoked salmon, cream cheese, caviar, and rugelach on the Lower East Side since 1914? The shop has been immortalized in countless articles, in a book, and, recently, in a delightfully hedonistic scene on comedian Louis C.K.’s hit TV series, Louie.

If you ask Hattie Russ Gold, 100, and Anne Russ Federman, 92, the two (of three) surviving Russ daughters, it turns out there is still plenty to discuss. Last week, in conjunction with the shop’s 100th anniversary, The Sturgeon Queens a documentary about Russ & Daughters, premiered at Jewish film festivals in Palm Beach, Tucson, and Virginia. The film spans more than a century, starting with founder Joel Russ, a Polish immigrant who began selling herring from a pushcart, and culminating with Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, cousins who in recent years became the 4th generation of Russes to run their family’s business.

Filmmaker Julie Cohen first discovered the famed fish store in 2007 while searching for a food establishment to feature in a previous documentary, The Jews of New York. Googling “babka” and “Lower East Side” turned up an article that mentioned Russ & Daughters. After a phone call with then-owner Mark Russ Federman, in which she learned that Anne and Hattie were not only still alive and living in Florida, but “sharp as tacks,” she knew she had found her match. “I was down there interviewing them in less than a week,” Cohen said.

In a documentary brimming with characters, from Ed Koch to the creators of Fiddler on the Roof, Hattie and Anne are standouts. From their homes in Pembroke Pines, FL, they reminisce about the price of herring (three for 10 cents back in the day), sing Yiddish songs, and share honest reflections about the hardships of working long hours in a demanding shop, starting in their early teens. “Everyone kept saying, ‘Oh, those sisters!’” Cohen said.

Cohen quickly realized she had a second film’s worth of material on her hands. So she brought together a handful of old-time customers to narrate and reached out to notable New Yorkers from Maggie Gyllenhaal to Calvin Trillin for their memories and affections. “Even before I heard the word ‘feminist,’ it made me happy to see this was an enterprise where the daughters counted,” Ruth Bader Ginsburg recalls on-screen.

The Sturgeon Queens was Joel Russ’ affectionate nickname for his daughters, but as Niki Russ Federman said, “There was never anything glamorous about it back then.” And yet over time, Hattie, Anne, and their sister Ida, grew gracefully into the role, setting the stage for their children and grandchildren to thrive, and for future generations to kvell.

“It was so powerful to watch the expression on my grandmother’s face as she watched the movie,” Russ Federman said. “She was watching her life be affirmed.”

Cohen’s movie captures the spirit of the Russ family, offering a light-hearted, historically rich testament to their devotion to both Jewish food and a changing neighborhood. As Russ Federman put it, “I see Julie’s film as a mutual love letter between my family and the people who have a relationship with Russ & Daughters.”

The Sturgeon Queens will be screened at several film festivals around the country and in Israel over the coming months, and will air on New York’s PBS station in fall of 2014.