There is no equal to Russ & Daughters. Opened in 1914, the famous shop transformed the word “appetizing” from a descriptor into a noun. For over half a century, descendants of Joel Russ, an Eastern European Jew who started life in America as a herring peddler, have sold lox, herring, sturgeon and whitefish to a devoted clientele on New York’s Lower East Side. As the trailer to 2014’s “The Sturgeon Queens,” a charming 52-minute documentary, claims, Russ & Daughters is going strong after “100 years, four generations and 1.8 million pounds of pickled herring.”

Julie Cohen—a journalist who also directed “RBG,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg—wrote, directed and produced “The Sturgeon Queens.” She assembled a group of narrators in their 70s, 80s and 90s, long-time customers who read from a script, seder-style, at the beginning of the film. This sweet crew does many takes to get the message across. At one point, a woman kibitzes with a man who keeps pronouncing “hipster” as “hippy.”

hattie with fish
Hattie Russ Gold (Courtesy Seventh Art Releasing)

Equally delightful are reflections from Bader Ginsburg. Bader Ginsburg’s mother grew up in a tenement not far from Russ & Daughters’ original location at 179 E. Houston St. Other notable New Yorkers praising the lox at Russ & Daughters include actor Maggie Gyllenhaal, who is half-Jewish and always serves nova from the fish emporium on Christmas Eve, and writer Calvin Trillin, whose work has paid homage to the Jewish food landmark. Morley Safer, the late “60 Minutes” correspondent, quips that, “On my deathbed, I’ll probably ask for [Russ & Daughters’] pickled herring.”

Russ & Daughters was founded shortly after Joel married Bella. They had three lovely daughters, Hattie, Ida and Anne. Working in the shop was a family affair. As the family patriarch, Russ was a taskmaster demanding that the girls miss social outings as teenagers to work in the store on weekends. Centenarian Hattie Russ Gold and Ann Russ Federman, 92, the two surviving Russ daughters at the time of filming, recall the hardships of working in freezing conditions in the winter and unbearable heat in the summer. “Papa was a tyrant,” said Anne.

inside store
(Courtesy Seventh Art Releasing)

Retired in southern Florida, the sisters reminisce about selling herring, three for 10 cents, and how Yiddish was their first language. They’re a dynamic duo who also sing songs. Their rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset” is a paean to Zero Mostel, the original Tevye on Broadway, who was a regular at the shop. Both lovingly agree that Mostel was “a little crazy.”


The sisters’ devotion to the store and to their parents was eventually rewarded. In an unusual move for the 1940s, Joel Russ gave the business to his daughters and changed the name to Russ & Daughters. “Even before I heard the word ‘feminist,’ it made me happy to see this was an enterprise where the daughters counted,” said Bader Ginsburg onscreen. Russ called his daughters “the sturgeon queens.” The affectionate moniker was well-earned. The sisters expertly filleted herring and sliced lox so thin that light filtered through. All the while, the affable sisters joked and bantered with their customers.

fish behind counter
(Courtesy Seventh Art Releasing)

In the 1990s, the third generation of Russes took over the business. Mark Russ Federman, Anne’s son, ran the store after practicing law. Under his leadership, he brought in outside employees whom he trained to cut lox into paper-thin slices. He passed on his love of the family business to his daughter, Niki Russ Federman, who is now in charge with her cousin, Josh Russ Tupper. This fourth generation has introduced innovations to the stalwart institution without sacrificing what made it a standout for over a century. Without sacrificing an iota of quality, Niki and Josh have maintained Russ & Daughters’ traditions and the very soul of the business.

However, these millennials have raised a few eyebrows among their elders. Niki’s father, Mark, was concerned that her “herring pairing event” would flop. But it turned out to be a huge success. Likewise, Josh proved the skeptical Mark wrong about creating the “Super Heebster” sandwich, which piles on whitefish and baked salmon salad with horseradish-dill cream cheese, wasabi and fish roe on a fresh, homemade bagel.

SQ anne herb still1300dpi
(Courtesy Seventh Art Releasing)

Additionally, Niki and Josh opened a sit-down café on nearby Orchard Street. They have a bakery storefront at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and have taken over the food service at the Jewish Museum. Their efforts to keep Russ & Daughters relevant in New York’s ever-evolving food scene have worked without compromising the essence of the business. As Niki jokingly belts out “Tradition, Tradition,” she has shared the reason that Russ & Daughters is now in its second century of business.

“The Sturgeon Queens” will be screened at the Vilna Shul on Thursday, Nov. 21. Mark Russ Federman will be on hand for a pre-screening dinner and Q&A following the film. Find more information here.