'The Sturgeon Queens' Premieres

Anne Russ behind the counter at Russ & Daughters. Photograph courtesy of Russ & Daughters.

“You want to watch a Homeland or something?” my husband Mark asked me the other night. I was on my computer, looking at a trailer for The Sturgeon Queens, a new documentary about the history of Russ & Daughters, the much beloved New York appetizing shop that’s celebrating its centennial this year.

“Check this out,” I said, turning the screen toward him and starting the preview from the beginning. I explained that I needed to watch the film sometime in the next few days, before interviewing the filmmaker, Julie Cohen, who also made the 2008 PBS documentary The Jews of New York.

Trailer for The Sturgeon Queens, which premieres this week. Flanking their father, Joel Russ, they are (from left to right) Hattie, Ida and Anne.

“Oh, let’s watch it now,” Mark said when the preview was over.

“Really?” I asked. “You’re okay watching a documentary about a Lower East Side appetizing shop instead of Homeland?”

“It looks great,” he said. And it was.

A few days later, I slid into a sage-green vinyl booth opposite Julie Cohen at the new Russ & Daughters Café, which opened a few blocks from the original shop in May. Over cream-cheese-and-lox omelets, a herring sampler and a delectable salmon spread called hot smoke/cold smoke, served with homemade potato chips, we chatted about the film.

Partway through our conversation, we were joined by Josh Russ Tupper, great-grandson of the original owner, Joel Russ, and grandson of Anne Russ Federman, one of the three “sturgeon queens.” Today, he and his first cousin Niki Russ Federman, a great-granddaughter of Joel and granddaughter Anne, are the fourth-generation owners of Russ & Daughters. These Russes are keeping traditions intact while seamlessly introducing a number of important innovations.

LS: What made you choose this project, Julie?

Julie Cohen: Really, it was Anne and [her sister] Hattie. I interviewed them six years ago for my PBS documentary The Jews of New York. Usually when I finish a project, I don’t ordinarily feel like I’ve left a whole lot on the cutting-room floor, but the interview with Anne and Hattie was a big exception. I spent an amazing day with them and knew that everything on that tape was great, including their singing, and I felt I wanted to turn it into more of a film on its own. And because of the Russ & Daughters 100th anniversary, it seemed like a good time to do it.

LS: Can you explain the passage of time in Sturgeon Queens?

JC: There were two things in the film from stuff I shot a long time ago. First, there was an interview with Josh and Niki [six years ago] when they’re still in their lab coats in the store. When I came back to make this into its own film, it was based on wanting to expand the old story, but it turned out that so much had happened to Russ & Daughters, there was the café opening, Josh and Niki were taking over the store — it had turned over to a next generation — they were making this huge step of opening the café. It happens to be a big time for Russ & Daughters, but really that wasn’t my reason. My reason was Anne and Hattie.

The fourth generation now runs the show: Niki Russ Federman (left) and Josh Russ Tupper. Photograph by Michael HarlanTurkell/Courtesy of Russ & Daughters

LS: There were three “sturgeon queens” sisters, but there are only two in the film. I’m afraid to ask…

JC: Ida passed away about 15 years ago. She had passed away when I did the original film. Hattie actually passed away in April. She was 101.

A lot of my films are about very old people. I like interviewing really old people. I worked for NBC News for a long time, and in the news world it’s unusual to interview someone over 60 who’s not a politician. My very first independent project was about New Yorkers in World War II. Obviously, for that project everyone I interviewed was over 80.

LS: What is it about old people?

JC: Old people make such great interview subjects. For one thing, they have more stories, because they’ve been around, and they tend to be less guarded. But I think the biggest reason isn’t age, it’s generational. People who grew up not watching television speak more interestingly and more individually, whereas anyone who grew up watching TV almost by default starts talking the way people talk when they’re on television. It’s an issue I’ve run into over my career. Why do people start to sound the same when you interview them? We have a media culture. That’s my theory.

In the TV or documentary world, people refer to people as being ‘good talkers’ or not, and I found it very common that people who are in their 80s and 90s are the best talkers of all.

LS: Is that why you decided to use elderly longtime customers as the narrators in the film? And what made you decide to actually show them in your film, sitting around a table with scripts, reading the narration, even making mistakes? You actually made them characters in the documentary.

JC: I don’t want to swear that I made it up, but I think I did. Josh talked about the film having the spirit of the store, and that was really my goal. Jews of New York was much more of a traditional PBS documentary, and when I decided to make a film just about Russ & Daughters, the big question on my mind was, ‘How can I capture the unique spirit of the institution in the film?’ And having nonprofessional elderly customer narrators was one of my main attempts at that.

Josh Russ Tupper: That essence of the store that she’s talking about is made up of the physical space, the staff, and the customers. And Julie recognized that and said, ‘What better way to tell the story?’ They’re bringing their experiences and interactions in the store to the film.

LS: Have they all been to screenings?

JC: All of them have come to at least one, and several have been to a few of them. Some are more mobile than others. It’s really fun. Ben Waxman, who’s 92, calls me pretty much every week. He just wants to talk about it, to tell me that he heard from someone about the film. He always had thoughts of being a celebrity and ran away from home when he was a teenager with thoughts of making it to Hollywood, but he only made it to New Jersey.

Ben Waxman, 92, a lifelong customer of the store and a narrator of the film. Courtesy of Julie Cohen.

LS: What was your favorite moment in the film, Julie?

JC: I really like listening to Anne and Hattie sing. I guess I’d say that’s my favorite, because there’s an element of their ongoing comedy that comes through when they’re singing, but it’s layered with these incredibly lovely voices. I’m a big music person; I like music. It taps into emotion in a way that’s similar to the way food taps into emotion, and certainly a song like Sunrise Sunset, which has a lot of emotional flashpoints for a lot of Jewish people, and to hear people who are in sunset mode singing that song about the passage of time with so much feeling was very touching to me. I included a little snippet of that in the Jews of New York, but I went back and said, ‘I want to include everything.’ In the end, I didn’t even suggest that song to them, I just asked, ‘What do you know from Fiddler on the Roof?’ and they came up with that one as being the one they wanted to sing, and I just enjoyed hearing it.

LS: Josh, what was your favorite moment in Sturgeon Queens? Do you have one?

JRT: I do. When my grandmother says to my great aunt, ‘You’ll be hearing about it,’ about the neighborhood changing.

JC: His great aunt says, ‘I wish I could see it,’ when we were talking about the changes to the Lower East Side, and Anne, who’s now 93, says, ‘You’ll be hearing about it.’

LS: The documentary shows the sweeping changes that occurred over the years to the Lower East Side. It seems like there was a trove of images, of source material. Did that influence your decision to make the film?

JC: With historical documentaries, that’s probably the threshold question. I probably wouldn’t have done this if the Russ family didn’t have so many great images going in.

JRT: No one was archiving photographs and things from the past, because for them it was just business. It wasn’t anything anyone was thinking about in the family. It was a way for them to survive and make a living. There was a dawning moment, and it happened fairly recently. My aunt [Maria] and uncle [Mark Russ Federman] took over the business from my grandparents in 1981 or ‘82.

The Lower East Side was a terrible place, lots of drugs and decrepit buildings, sort of rough and tumble. My uncle did, in his tenure, do kind of a brightening up of the store. So I think during his tenure he realized that it’s been 80 years or whatever it was, that this is something special and we should treat it like that, but he wasn’t going to hire photographers. It was just his way of life in a tough area to do business. But we had customers coming from all over the city and New Jersey.

LS: What’s next. Josh? Any more innovations in the works?

JRT: There aren’t. We’re working on possibly making our own bagels. We’re focusing on opening the café in the Jewish Museum.

Our idea of innovation is being current with the times and with technology, without changing too much. And the key to Russ & Daughters is we try to really stick to who we are and who we’ve always been, which is traditional because we’ve been here for 100 years. We try to stay current by maybe introducing a new menu item — 10 or 15 years ago we introduced wasabi roe. But so many people are making this food, which is very simple and delicious, so for the café we tried to stick to the basic elements of what these foods are, and make it as good as it could possibly be.

At Russ & Daughters Café. Photograph by Jen Snow and Kelli Anderson.

Our growth and innovation happens while we’re keeping tradition intact, and it’s very important for us to do that. Computerizing the store, making everything more technologically sound on the back end, but the customers shouldn’t really see anything.

LS: What made you decide to allow Julie to make this film, and are you happy with the result?

JRT: Julie made a beautiful piece for PBS, the Jews of New York, and approached us for this film, and it was a no brainer for us. And the outcome couldn’t have been better, in our opinion. It represents the store almost exactly the way we see ourselves, and from the customer’s perspective. So we couldn’t be more pleased with the film.

LS: What’s the coolest thing about it for you?

JRT: Seeing it. And seeing the reactions people are having. Random people who see it come in and say, ‘I saw the film and I had to come in here.’ People from L.A., San Francisco, everywhere it’s shown. It’s very touching. The more I see it, the more emotional I get, which is something strange for me because I’m not the most emotional person.

The Sturgeon Queens premieres this week on New York’s Channel 13 and also airs on WLIW21. Check listings for showtimes.

Liza Schoenfein is the food editor of the Forward. Contact her at schoenfein@forward.com.

'The Sturgeon Queens' Premieres

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