Sturgeon Queens hold court in tale of 100-year-old N.Y. deli

“The Sturgeon Queens,” a documentary about the iconic New York delicatessen Russ & Daughters, lets the “queens” do most of the talking. And boy, do they! Who needs actors when you’ve got two sharp, witty superstars to tell their own story?

Centenarian Hattie Russ Gold and her 92-year-old sister, Anne Russ Federman, hold court from their Pembroke, Fla., retirement home as they reminisce about their mother and father and the evolution of Russ & Daughters, the thriving, 100-year-old shop that sells fish, shmears and bagels (but no meat) on the Lower East Side.

One of the daughters from the famous Lower East Side eatery Russ & Daughters

The two sisters deliver the story with candor and pride, as do a host of others — family members as well as famous and not-so-famous longtime customers.

Even if you’re never heard of Russ & Daughters, you’ll delight in this 54-minute film, which makes its Bay Area premiere July 26 in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival at the CineArts in Palo Alto. There will be subsequent SFJFF screenings in Berkeley, San Francisco and San Rafael.

To round out the film, director Julie Cohen brings in old footage of immigrant life in early 1900s New York, lively klezmer music and Yiddish tunes, and cameo appearances by Russ & Daughters fans such as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal and “60 Minutes” journalist Morley Safer, who all sing its praises.

It’s not just the lox, sturgeon and caviar that draw them, they explain; it’s the culture as well. “When I eat the food from Russ & Daughters, it makes me think of the best of the Jewish tradition,” says Ginsburg, whose parents lived in a tenement near the Houston Street shop.

Safer, who doesn’t live in the neighborhood but goes out of his way for the food, quips, “On my deathbed, I’ll probably ask for [their] pickled herring.”

A handful of “regulars” — biddies in their 70s, 80s and 90s seated around a table laden with Russ & Daughters staples — fill in as narrators. Reading a script Cohen has handed them, they mispronounce words, mix up sentences and do retakes for the patient director and crew. Their authenticity makes the film that much more endearing.

No one puts on airs in this film. Mark Russ Federman describes his grandfather, Joel Russ, as “short on patience, long on drive.”

His mother, Anne, is blunt: “Papa was a tyrant.”

“We froze our rear ends off,” Hattie chimes in. They recall how, as girls, they worked on weekends, with no heat. The store was open seven days a week (to the dismay of their mother, Bella, who was more religious than their father). Most everyone spoke Yiddish.

Yet the sisters got their due. In an age when men ruled the business world, the three Russ daughters not only worked behind the counter but were officially recognized in its name. “It made me happy to see this was an enterprise where daughters counted,” notes Ginsburg.

Today the store is run by fourth-generation family members Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, who recently opened Russ & Daughters Café nearby. Here, in addition to getting to shmooze like they do in the store, guests can actually sit down and eat.

Though the cousins have kept up traditions that Russ & Daughters is known for — such as curing and smoking their own fish, and precision slicing — they’ve also instituted change. Their “herring pairing event” — which horrified Niki’s dad, Mark (he feared it would be a huge flop) — was a roaring success. Likewise, they proved him wrong with their “Super Heebster” sandwich (whitefish and baked salmon salad with horseradish dill cream cheese and wasabi fish roe, on a bagel).

And though Anne Russ Federman says she never pushed Mark, who practiced law before starting at the deli, she’s pleased as punch with his decision.

And she’s “shepping nachas — do you know what that means?” about the grandkids.

“The Sturgeon Queens,” 4:15 p.m. Saturday, July 26 at CineArts in Palo Alto, 8:30 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Berkeley Rep (as part of the Berkeley Big Bash), 12:15 p.m. Aug. 3 at the Castro Theatre in S.F., noon Aug. 10 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael. The director will appear at the Berkeley Rep and Castro screenings. (Unrated, 54 minutes)


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Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.