"The Sturgeon Queens": They had me at lox.
Joel Russ, an immigrant from Galicia, began his life in New York's Lower East Side peddling herring. Newly landed Jews, most fleeing the pogroms of Eastern Europe, were poor. Many lived packed into shared rooms in tenement buildings. A schmaltz (fat) salted herring, plucked from a barrel and wrapped in either of the two Jewish daily newspapers, would be enough for two meals, explains grandson Mark Russ Federman in this heartwarming documentary by filmmaker Julie Cohen. It's playing at The Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill on March 30 (sold out) and April 6 (11:30 a.m.), as part of the 21st annual JFilm Festival.
For the first meal, you'd rub the herring across a slice of bread, so the fat would soak into it. For the second, you'd cook the herring.
Things improved for Joel Russ the peddler. He married Bella, opened a store selling smoked fish, including, of course, herring, along with smoked salmon, sturgeon and whitefish. No one recalls seeing affection between the two. Nevertheless, they had three stunning daughters who also worked in the store.
As Russ grew older, in a move unusual for the time, he passed on the Lower East Side business to his daughters, calling it Russ & Daughters. Serving "the best [smoked fish] in the Jewish tradition" says Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose mother grew up on the Lower East Side, which she describes in a memorable interview.
The daughters, whom Russ called "The Sturgeon Queens," expertly filleted the herring and sliced the lox paper-thin, all the while joking with and teasing the customers.
Narrators for the film are an elderly group of long-time customers, seated amidst bountiful platters of herring, lox and rugelach. They read from scripts, like at a Seder. The two surviving Russ daughters, Anne and Hattie, tell us stories, as well, and look terrific.
Russ & Daughters is now lovingly run by a fourth generation. They've brought things into the Twitter generation, computerizing records, establishing a website and hosting events, such as the hip and successful "Herring Pairing."
The smoked fish emporium remains "Tradition!" among generations of families, a place where people can linger and schmooze. One favorite customer, actor Zero Mostel, may have left us, but plenty of other lox-loving luminaries shop there. Couples have met and become engaged "over a bagel and maybe some nova." Russ & Daughters celebrates its 100th birthday this year.
Remember the advertising campaign, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Rye Bread?" In the film, you'll learn you that don't have to be Jewish to slice lox. But it helps if you become proficient in Yiddish.
The film's images of hand-rolled bagels piled high with glistening slices of lox will make you very, very hungry. Noshing follows the first screening, with local establishments providing delectables, all included in the price.
Here are some of the goodies promised: From NU Restaurant, baked salmon gefilte fish with red bay aioli; Southwestern-style smoked cod gefilte-fish truffles topped with smoked chipotle-lime aioli; Israeli salad; and a traditional dairy noodle kugel.
Smallman Street Deli will be serving nova canapes on mini latkes and salmon salad on mini challah rolls.
Lila Weiss, president of Murray Street Kosher, didn't know what she was serving. Maybe lox, she mused, but she thought herring might be the way to go, given that this movie is all about a herring peddler who made good. I admit I encouraged her a little. Go for the schmaltz, the creamed herring with onions, I urged. There's salmon already.
So she's planning on bringing platters of all kinds of herring: Matjes (young and mildly salted), honey-Dijon, schmaltz fillets and the pickled one with onions and sour cream. Plus kichel (dry eggy cookies), both plain and sugared. They're often served with herring at a Kiddush
A representative from Rauh Jewish Archives will be at the first sold-out ($20) screening to talk about the history of Squirrel Hill and Murray Avenue. Also, copies of the book "Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House That Herring Built" by Mark Russ Federman will be for sale.
There is no food nor extras with the April 6 screening, but you can get tickets ($10, or $5 for youth and $8 for groups of 12-plus in advance only) at jfilmpgh.org.
Miriam Rubin: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @mmmrubin.