The Fascinating Story Behind ‘Russ & Daughters’, On Exhibit Now

Delicious, but such tiny portions.

That’s the feeling after noshing on “Russ & Daughters: An Appetizing Story”, a compact exhibition that opened this week at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan.

Russ & Daughters, of course, is the “appetizing store” that’s been hawking smoked fish, pickles, and noshes from the same Lower East Side perch since 1907. Under the direction of Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper - fourth-generation owners of the business - Russ & Daughters has mushroomed, with a sleek outpost at the Jewish Museum and a huge commercial operation at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

There’s a fascinating story behind the business, and anyone who’s read Mark Russ Federman’s Russ & Daughters memoir knows the shop carries decades of lore, stories, and gossip. The exhibition skims the surface, but you walk away feeling there’s an even bigger tale to tell behind this iconic Jewish enterprise.

The show runs along three walls in a gallery off the Center’s lobby. Curator Annie Polland, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society, dug deep into AJHS’ archives for images and audio, and cajoled Niki Russ Federman into sharing family memorabilia, some of which had never been made public.

“Annie had to convince me to do it,” Federman told the Forward during a walk-through of the show. “I was skeptical - it was, ‘here’s some boxes we kept’. She and her team went through them and found things we didn’t know we had, like an audio cassette we didn’t even know existed.” The tape contained a conversation with her grandmother, who talked about her own entrepreneurial aspirations before joining the family business.

“This show explores the idea that you have to be aware where you’re coming from,” Polland said. “Niki and Josh are conscious of where they’re coming from in how they run the business. And the exhibition pushes people to think about their own stories and take meaning from them.”

The exhibition offers a chronological history of the business, including a brief history of “appetizing” stores (as opposed to delis; the museum’s PR firm sent journalists a paragraph instructing us to use the term “appetizing”). Wall panels explore the Russ & Daughters experience, from taking a number to the sensory overload that still greets every customer who walked through the Houston Street doors.

Lower East Side Jewish history also gets a glimpse, as does the Russ’ family tree and the current state of the business (“We really don’t want to screw it up”, says Josh Russ Tupper on one panel). Only in the exhibition’s final section does it tip into promotional language (“In 2019 they opened an 18,000 square foot base of operations at the Brooklyn Navy Yard complete with a bakery, kitchens, private event space, appetizing counter and nationwide shipping facility… From the Navy Yard, packages ship to every state in the country”).

An Instagram-ready pop-up booth near the last exhibition panel replicates the Russ & Daughters store counter, complete with white jackets for museum patrons to don while snapping photos. “This is definitely a crossover show,” Polland said. “Even when we were setting up, with a barrier around the walls, people were pushing to get in.”

Polland and the American Jewish Historical Society nailed it by recognizing the cultural and culinary significance of Russ & Daughters. “For so many people, even if they’re not Jewish, this is New York City to them,” Polland said. But it feels like there’s a bigger show hidden inside this abbreviated exhibition. The food itself, the immigrants - now mostly Latino - who staff the business, the Yiddish-theater connections, the family dynamics, the changing Lower East Side, “appetizing” food’s conquest of the mainstream….. Each thread contains multitudes of stories.

The show’s expected to travel, and maybe it’ll expand. In the meantime, “Russ & Daughters: An Appetizing Story” will have to tide you over.

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We're honored that American Jewish Historical Society acquired the Russ & Daughters archive and curated an exhibit that opens to the public on 9/13/19! "RUSS & DAUGHTERS: AN APPETIZING STORY explores how the Russ family, over four generations and 105 years, has balanced innovation with tradition, and has moved beyond the Lower East Side without abandoning the LES culture. The exhibit celebrates the legendary Jewish appetizing store’s role in shaping New York’s culture and culinary heritage. Most archives focus on paper as a form of transmission: AJHS alone has 30 million pages of documents. But a store, led by four overlapping generations of a family, is also a vessel of history, capturing century-old practices. The Russ family members relay stories of herring sellers and customers for more than a century. Knowing how to slice lox thin is important; just as important is knowing when to innovate, what to preserve, and staying attuned to customers past, present and future. The exhibit will feature original materials from the Russ & Daughters family archive, placed in historical context alongside elements of the AJHS collection. Visitors will be able to listen to previously-unheard audio clips from the Second Generation Hattie Russ Gold and Anne Russ Federman, known as the “Sturgeon Queens,” and see historic photographs of the store and the family, and view posters featuring Yiddish theater performers Molly Picon and Aaron Lebedoff, who were regular customers. The exhibit focuses on the story behind the food, and invites visitors to contribute their own food stories, which will be preserved in the Russ & Daughters collection at AJHS. Visitors can also don the famous R&D white coat uniforms and pose behind a replica of the famed appetizing counter.” American Jewish Historical Society is located at 15 West 16th Street, New York, NY 10011 inside of The Center for Jewish History. #AppetizingStories #RussAndDaughters #AppetizingSince1914 #NYC @ajhsnyc @centerforjewishhistory

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