A program celebrating the contributions of past generations and the perpetuation of community and traditions into the future brought together 70 people who understand the importance of both.
At Cheers and Shmears to 20 Years — cosponsored by the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey and the Oscar and Ella Wilf Campus for Senior Living — honors were bestowed on residents of area active-adult communities who have made annual contributions to federation for at least 20 years.
The speaker at the June 8 event at Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick was someone who well understands paying tribute to and preserving traditions: Mark Russ Federman, whose grandfather founded the appetizing store that would later become Russ & Daughters on the Lower East Side in 1914.
The establishment is still going strong, albeit with a change in the makeup of its clientele over the decades, and is now being run by members of the fourth generation of the family: Federman’s daughter, Niki Russ Federman, and his nephew, Josh Russ Tupper.
Increasingly, those who enjoy the store’s high-end smoked and pickled fish and, of course, a bagel and a “shmear,” represent different immigrant origins. But many customers can lay claim to carrying on their families’ Eastern European heritage by frequenting Russ & Daughters; they are drawn by history, tradition, and, of course, delicious food — some by ordering on-line and having the delicacies shipped to places far from the Lower East Side.
In 2000 the Smithsonian Institution designated the store as “part of New York’s cultural heritage,” and Russ & Daughters and the former tenement building that houses it were named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. “The history of the Lower East Side is the history of our store,” said Federman.
Host committee member Rhoda Juskow of Monroe Township told the gathering she made her first $18 donation to what was then the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County 50 years ago.
“I want to thank you all because at the end of the day, as you lay your head on the pillow, you know you made people’s lives richer and better,” she said.
Another host committee member, Linda Benish of Monroe, said when she was growing up in Chicago her parents gave to UJA, and she and her husband, Allan, have continued that tradition wherever they have lived.
She noted that the Federation in the Heart of NJ provides funds to educate and cultivate the next generation by supporting day schools, PJ library for young children, camp scholarships, and federation’s J-Team teen philanthropy initiative, which she runs.
“All of these support the Jewish future,” she said, adding she just returned from Israel, where the benefits of federation’s support of the Birthright Israel program were evident. “One of the most inspiring things we saw were hundreds and hundreds of Jewish teens and young people,” said Benish. “They were singing and dancing at the Wall and exploring Masada.”
Federation CEO Keith Krivitzky said that for individuals seeking to add value to their lives and benefit the community, “federation is the best place to help meet those needs and help others find their connection to Jewish life.”
Federman told the group that he had walked away from a law career to return to the family business. He professed to be the only Jewish father in America who was disappointed that his son became a doctor. “I said sturgeon; he must have heard surgeon,” said Federman, drawing a laugh.
Before beginning his spiel, Federman showed a clip from the 2014 documentary The Sturgeon Queens, which featured his then-92-year-old mother, Anne Russ Federman, and his aunt, Hattie Russ Gold, then 100 years old (she died at 102). Their middle sister, Ida, left to start her own appetizing store on Long Island.
The clip showed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recalling how before she even heard the word feminist, Russ & Daughters had already broken the glass ceiling.
Federman said his immigrant grandfather, Joel Russ, had no sons, so he decided to do what was then unheard of and made his daughters full partners, changing the name to Russ & Daughters in 1933.
An appetizing store, unlike a deli that sold meat, sold only fish and accompanying products like cream cheese and sour cream. Meat and dairy products were never mixed in the store because of kosher dietary laws, said Federman. However, the store was never under kosher supervision because his grandfather wanted to stay open on Saturdays.
The Russ sisters were expected to work in the store, which had no heat or air conditioning, from as young as 11 years old.
Most customers spoke Yiddish and lived in overcrowded tenements. “Most American Jews I talk to have romanticized the Lower East Side, but the truth is it was an awful place and you wanted to get out,” said Federman.
The immigrants worked hard for their money and expected to be rewarded with personal service. Federman described a traditional Russ customer as someone who would call and ask for an eighth of a pound of lox “cut thin.”
“I would say, ‘Lady, could you buy a quarter pound? It’s a holiday,’” said Federman. “I understand this kind of customer. They made you work hard, but you also knew they would be loyal customers for life and their kids would be loyal customers.”
Now that the Lower East Side has acquired a “tenement chic” status, the multi-ethnic designers, bankers, and hedge fund operators living there are a new breed: They are patient, take a number, wait in line, and say “thank you” when handed their purchase.
Federman said he believes Russ & Daughters has “added value” to the Jewish community and world through decades of stories and traditions shared across the counter.
“They come back and we shmooze with them,” said Federman. “They leave happy. Where else in the world can you have that?”