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Russ & Daughters exhibit tells family history from barrel to counter

Niki Russ Federman, the fourth-generation co-owner of Russ

Niki Russ Federman, the fourth-generation co-owner of Russ & Daughters, stands behind a replica of the store's counter at the Center for Jewish History. Credit: Shaye Weaver

In 1907, Joel Russ had only a barrel from which to sell his pickled herring. More than 100 years later, his great-grandchildren are selling it (and a smorgasbord of other foods) at four locations, including a restaurant, under a name that has become integral to New York City history — Russ & Daughters.

The shop, which has been on East Houston Street for 105 years, is the subject of its own exhibit that opened Friday, Sept. 13 at the Center for Jewish History called "Russ & Daughters: An Appetizing Story," which takes visitors through the history of the beloved store.

The American Jewish Historical Society worked with fourth-generation owners Niki Federman and Joshua Russ Tupper to dig through the family's records and stories to present a narrative that traces the company's beginnings from J. Russ Cut Rate Appetizing to today's Russ & Daughters.

"You rarely have a moment when you're running a business to literally get the historic perspective on the impact our family has had and the way in which this small shop has been so much a part of the life of New York and for so many generations of people," Federman told amNewYork on Monday. "It's incredible that Russ & Daughters and our archive will sit alongside Emma Lazarus's manuscript of 'The New Colossus' and these fundamental pieces of the Jewish American experience, and that we're considered part of that is a huge honor." 

As you walk through the small exhibit, which was produced by the American Jewish Historical Society at the Center for Jewish History, you see black and white family photos of the original daughters — Hattie, Ida and Anne — get to hear them share their memories and see a poster from the former Yiddish Art Theatre featuring performers Molly Picon and Aaron Lebedeff, who were regular customers. (In fact, the store used to stay open until 1 and 2 a.m. so that it could feed the rush of theatergoers from Second Avenue.) There are also letters from customers from the 1960s-70s ordering from afar. 

Don't call it a deli: Russ & Daughters is an appetizing store — not a deli. While delis sell cured and pickled meats, appetizing stores sell fish and dairy products, or foods one eats with bagels. It's a distinction that was made in keeping with Jewish dietary laws, which dictate that meat and dairy products cannot be sold together. 

These appetizing stores were in almost every neighborhood, especially the Lower East Side, which at one point had 30. But once grocery stores began moving in, offering everything in one shop, they dwindled. 

Notably, the museum points out the importance of Joel Russ renaming his shop to include his daughters — it just wasn't done then (in 1935). Russ acknowledged that his daughters were crucial to the business and should be partners. Besides, he wasn't exactly the king of customer service, according to Federman, who started "working" at the store by the age of 5.

Russ had a habit of telling rude customers to "listen to me, why don't you forget the address," she said with a laugh.

The exhibit has a fun photo opportunity, where you can take a number, get "behind the counter" and don a Russ & Daughters' white coat and stand next to the shop's wrapping paper. 

And while there is currently no babka or rugelach sold at the Center, there are plans to bring some in for purchase for those who want the Russ & Daughters experience. And if you have your own story or memory about the store, the AJHS will collect and include them in their archive.

"I've been teaching history for a long time and I find people think of history as a textbook or a quiz, but it's a story and when we learn about history, we learn more complexities and nuance," said Annie Polland, the executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society. "Today the historical profession has come a long way and food is a part of that — people really relate to food and stories and Russ & Daughters not only has good food but it's filled with wonderful stories." 

If you go: The exhibition is open from 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Fridays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is free. For more information, visit ajhs.org.

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