New documentary celebrates Russ & Daughters fish shop
Lower East Side When filmmaker Julie Cohen produced a one-hour special for PBS about Jewish life in New York City, she included a segment on iconic fish and specialty food shop Russ & Daughters. She interviewed second generation owners Anne Russ Federman and Hattie Russ Gold at their homes in Florida, and ended up with about two hours of footage for the 10-minute segment. She couldn't leave the rest on the cutting room floor.
"The Sturgeon Queens," Cohen's new documentary about the Lower East Side institution, resulted from the extra footage-and many additional interviews-which will screen on the opening night of the Lower East Side Film Festival on June 12. The shop celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, and the film coincidentally aligns with the recent opening of Russ & Daughter's Café, the shop's new sit-down restaurant on Orchard Street, a few blocks from the East Houston Street storefront.
Cohen, whose great-grandparents came to the United States through Ellis Island and settled on the Lower East Side, was attracted to the ubiquity of the Russ story.
"Starting with nothing, as very provincial Yiddish speakers and prodding their children and grandchildren to move up in the world and get educated, that is my family story as well as the story of so many viewers, both Jews and non-Jews," Cohen said.
Running at 52 minutes, "The Sturgeon Queens" tells the tale of patriarch Joel Russ, who started the shop in 1914 and later partnered with his three daughters, who carried on the business. Along with Anne and Hattie, Cohen interviewed Anne's son Mark Russ Federman and current proprietors (and Joel's great-grandchildren) Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, the brains behind the café.
The voices of longtime customers narrate the story. Instead of using traditional voice over, Cohen asked six customers, all in their 70s, 80s and 90s, to read the history of the shop they've frequented for decades.
"I didn't want this to seem like a historic, PBS, Ken Burns-style sweeping history," Cohen said. "I wanted it to be a little more homey and personal and fun."
Ben Waxman, or Benny to his friends, is one of the narrators. At 91, he has lived on the Lower East Side his entire life and, like the Russes, ran a family-owned business in the neighborhood. His father opened Haber's, a supply shop that sold everything from athletic shoes to office furniture, in 1928. Waxman said he gave Anne's husband Herb a pair of Adidas umpire shoes to ease the aches brought on by long hours at Russ & Daughters. When Herb took his breaks, he walked the ten blocks to Haber's and "schmoozed."
Waxman's friendly relationship with the Russ clan continues today.
"When I walk into that shop I feel I have a camaraderie with almost everyone there," he said. "I think I know just about everyone there."
Cohen also cast notable clientele, including actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose parents lived on the Lower East Side. Ginsburg was the first celebrity to agree to the film, which she accepted in a hand-written note.
During shooting, Cohen brought the interviewees their favorite Russ & Daughters snacks. For Gyllenhaal, she delivered Nova lox on a pumpernickel bagel. "60 Minutes" correspondent Morley Safer got pickled herring. And it was Scottish salmon for Ginsburg, who sent Cohen another hand-written letter, thanking her for the fish.
"I was surprised again and again by the amount of almost romantic attachment [customers] have to the store," she said. "People who you wouldn't really expect like Justice Ginsburg or Maggie Gyllenhaal are basically getting teary when they're talking about their favorite smoked fish."