“Sturgeon Queens,” a new documentary set to screen at festivals and to air on PBS stations in the New York area, traces the vibrant life of Russ & Daughters, the iconic cured-fish palace that opened on New York’s Lower East Side in 1914. This year, the still-thriving store celebrates its 100th anniversary, and its owners, fourth-generation Russes, plan to open a 65-seat café nearby. It’s a big year for a celebrated Jewish business that has weathered many changes in the neighborhood’s cultural landscape.
Seasoned filmmaker Julie Cohen had been planning a full-length feature on the store for years. She knew that if she wanted to make it happen, 2014 would be the time.
“It really had to be this year,” she said.
Cohen, who runs the documentary production company Better Than Fiction, came across the idea for a Russ & Daughters movie back in 2008, when PBS commissioned her to produce “The Jews of New York,” an hour-long program that wove together six stories of Jewish life in the city. The tale of the appetizing store was just one of those stories, but it really resonated with Cohen, who, like many secular Jews, said that her strongest connection to her heritage is through its foods.
“Like every good Jewish girl, I love lox and pickled herring,” she said.
What really drew Cohen into the Russ & Daughters story, though, was the wit and charm of the eponymous shop’s daughters. For the 2008 film, Cohen flew down to Pembroke Pines, Florida to interview the two surviving members of Russ and Daughters’ second-generation owners, Hattie Russ Gold, now 100, and Anne Russ Federman, now 92. The Russ women began apprenticing behind the store’s counter as children, eventually taking over the business with their husbands in the 1940s.
Over the course of a two hour-plus interview, Cohen became captivated by the sharp, hilarious women.
“They reminded me of my grandmother,” she said.
For the upcoming film “The Sturgeon Queens” — its title taken from a blurb printed on vintage Russ & Daughters shopping bags referring to the daughters as the “queens of Lake Sturgeon” — Cohen drew her material from that 2007 interview, and shot plenty of new footage, too, including interviews with the store’s current owners, Joshua Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman.
One of the most original aspects of the film is its narration, or, rather, its non-narration. Rather than use a traditional narrator, which Cohen says can feel stiff or over-important, the filmmaker tracked down a group of loyal Russ & Daughters customers, both men and women, now in their seventies, eighties and nineties. The group met at the store, picked out bagels, spreads and fishy treats, and brought their haul back to a big dining room table, which they arranged themselves around and then read portions of the script, a paragraph at a time, “Seder-style,” Cohen said.
“I thought to myself, ‘How do Jews tell a story?’” Cohen said. “And then the idea of a Seder just occurred to me,” she said, adding that her group of “narrators” immediately understood the idea when she explained it.
In the film, the warmth and expansiveness of the group of storytellers helps bring the store’s history to life.
“I really like working with main characters who are in their eighties or older,” Cohen explained. “It’s an age group that was not raised on television, and so they have a better way of talking on camera. They speak more individually.”
Another cast of characters acts as a draw to the film: a group of celebrity customers including the actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, TV chef Mario Batali, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who share their memories of Russ & Daughters and their connections to New York’s Jewish culture. As a lure to involvement in the project, Cohen promised each celeb their favorite snack from the store, which a few of the stars sample on camera: Gyllenhaal likes Nova lox on a pumpernickel bagel; Batali opts for luxe black caviar and Ginsburg favors Scottish smoked salmon as well as pickled herring.
Cohen laughed as she recalled visiting the Justice in Washington, D.C., her bag of briny fish in tow.
“I’m pretty sure I’m the only person to ever have brought pickled herring into the U.S. Supreme Court,” she said.
“The Sturgeon Queens” will screen on Monday, January 20 and Tuesday, January 21 at the Palm Beach Jewish Film Festival; on Monday, January 20 at the Tucson Jewish Film Festival; and on Wednesday, January 22 at the Virginia Festival of Jewish Film. It will hit PBS later this year, after it completes the festival circuit. Check the film’s website for more information and a complete screening schedule.