An independent filmmaker relishes the chance to present a new film to large, live audiences, so I was excited as I set off this year for Jewish Film Festivals and JCCs all over the country with “The Sturgeon Queens,” my documentary about the century-long history of the iconic Lower East Side smoked fish store Russ & Daughters.
I prepared for questions about the editing process, interviewing Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Mario Batali, and working with the six elderly Russ & Daughters customers who narrated the film.
But our audiences — largely Jewish, well off and north of 60 — had something else in mind. Invariably during the question-and-answer period, whether I’m in a big East Coast city or a small community in middle America, a hand will shoot up with intensity and a theatergoer, often teary, will offer some variation of the same theme: “My grandparents came from Poland and opened a bialy shop in New Jersey” or “My Great Uncle Morty sold the best pastrami in Omaha!” Sometimes there is a question appended. Other times, the speaker wants to recite the menu or — with varying degrees of noodging — suggest I make a documentary about his family’s business.
At first, to be honest, I found these exchanges somewhat irritating. (Why did viewers seem more focused on their own personal histories with corned beef and schmaltz herring than my carefully crafted narrative following four generations of the Russ family?) But as the “Uncle Morty’s pastrami” line of questioning recurred in venue after venue, I began to appreciate its meaning.
First, I realized the enormous role selling food has played in the Jewish immigration story. I’d associated grocery stores, diners and bodegas with Korean-, Greek-, and Dominican-Americans, the immigrant groups that have visibly run them since I moved to New York in the 1980s. My “Sturgeon Queens” audiences have inadvertently educated me on just how many Jewish immigrant families, a few decades earlier, started their climbs to success and assimilation by opening bakeries, delis and appetizing stores.
And I’ve come to understand audiences are connecting back to their own families’ pasts not because they’ve missed the Russ story, but because it has penetrated more deeply. The sense memories evoked by the film are leading viewers down a very personal path. Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, who took over the business after getting college educations, have noted that Russ & Daughters’ pickled herring has the same soul-stirring effect as Proust’s madeleines. A bit of a reach, I thought, until I considered the passage. “The smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us,” Proust wrote. “And bear unfaltering … the vast structure of recollection.” Apparently, sumptuous close-up footage of smoked fish, combined with the familiar verbal inflections of Jewish nonagenarians and the right Yiddish music, has a similar impact.
Maybe that’s why our post-screening discussions are more emotional than your typical documentary Q&A. Sometimes, a session turns into a massive game of Jewish geography, with audience members excited to remember the long-closed establishment run by the forebearers of someone sitting in the row in front of them. After a screening in Connecticut, a middle-aged woman got choked up as she waxed poetic about meats once served at her family’s deli (Mintz’s? Moishe’s?) in Long Beach, L.I. She went on for so long, others got fidgety, jokingly asking, “Can you repeat the question?” after her five-minute monologue. When I finally had the floor again, rather than steering discussion back to the film, I found myself sharing my own recollections of Long Beach — coincidentally my Dad’s hometown — and speculating about whether my late beloved Grammy and Grampy might have shopped at the audience member’s family’s store.
After months of domestic screenings, “The Sturgeon Queens” now heads to Europe, Israel, even East Asia (yes, there is a Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival). As I stood at the front of a posh North London theater for questions last week, I wasn’t sure what to expect. True to form, the most poignant commentary came from an attorney who wanted to talk about chickens. The Russ family’s attachment to each piece of sturgeon they sold, he said, mirrored feelings in his own family, who for five generations have run Great Britain’s largest kosher poultry slaughterhouse. By now, I don’t view stories like that as a distraction from the Russ narrative, but an expansion of it.
So if you come to a screening or watch the broadcast premiere next week on WNET/13, I hope my film reminds you of the pioneering generations of your family. And don’t be afraid to raise your hand or shoot me an email to kvell about the brisket or babka your great grandparents sold in Brooklyn or Boca.
Julie Cohen is the director and producer of “The Sturgeon Queens,” an official selection of more than 60 festivals and winner of six Audience Choice Awards. firstname.lastname@example.org.
“The Sturgeon Queens” premieres on WNET/13 on Tuesday, Dec. 2 at 10 p.m. It replays Wednesday, Dec. 3, 7:30 p.m. on WLIW/21.