The Foundation for Jewish Culture honored Russ & Daughters with the 2013 Jewish Cultural Achievement award – which honors ”luminaries who keep contemporary Jewish culture rich, vibrant, and relevant.”
State Senator Daniel Squadron was on hand to present the award to Josh Russ Tupper, Niki Russ Federman, and Mark Russ Federman.
The other recipients this year were Pulitzer prize-winning author Michael Chabon, Bard College President and conductor Dr. Leon Botstein, philanthropist Scott Berrie, and historian Dr. Deborah Dash Moore. The award has a rich history, and past recipients include: Elie Weisel, Philip Roth, Maurice Sendak, the creators of Fiddler on the Roof, Tony Kushner, John Zorn, Joan Micklin Silver, and many other distinguished figures in the worlds of art, architecture, culture, and scholarship.
Russ & Daughters is the first ever honoree from the food world. In his presentation speech, State Senator Daniel Squadron said:
It’s truly a great honor to be here. It’s an honor and the sort of privilege that one doesn’t necessarily expect to get in one’s career — especially not when one’s relationship with that which he is honoring is one of the small child or young man, desperately excited and privileged just to participate in the place… which is naturally my feeling about Russ & Daughters.
And it’s especially meaningful to do it here at the Foundation, connecting my feelings — and the feelings reflected throughout the city and the diaspora — about Russ & Daughters and what it represents, and giving it the appropriate depth that it deserves.
So I have to admit something. When I first ran for the State Senate, I was fairly young and I was a long shot candidate. And the first day I really realized I was running was during Erev Yom Kippur in 2007, when I was in line at Russ & Daughters…for a very long time.
I got there early, as I’d done for a long time. You see, my wife and I — my girlfriend at the time — host the Yom Kippur break-fast every year. I’m the youngest of five children and the youngest of nine cousins, and so the other holidays were taken. My brother hosts the first night of Passover, my cousin the second night. One brother hosts that time between Chanukah and New Years that isn’t called Christmas. Another cousin hosts a get-together in the middle of the summer. So by the time I came along, the break-fast was what we got — and thank goodness we had Russ & Daughters.
I waited in line, I ordered what I order (about twice as much as the number of people justifies), and I went home. And I said to my girlfriend, “I really need to win this race because, if I do, I will represent Russ & Daughters. Can you imagine?”
And she said, “No – and even if you win, you better still wait in line.” She’s the wiser of the two of us.
So, I was successful in that campaign. And I’ve been really proud of representing Russ & Daughters in the Senate and continuing to wait in line — and not just because I lobbied to have my sandwich added to the menu: the roe cream cheese with salmon, whitefish salad, shredded whitefish, and wasabi roe on an everything bagel. I hope you’re taking notes!
But I’m also so proud to represent Russ & Daughters because it’s really about more than food.
For the Foundation for Jewish Culture to honor Russ & Daughters as the final award of the evening is appropriate because, in many ways, food — in our culture and in our families — is the foundation in a true way. And this story and this family — Niki, Josh, Mark, the generation above, the daughters, and the original founder — represent a foundational part of what it means to be Jewish, living in the diaspora, living in a city that has meant so much to the Jewish people — because of the continuity, because of the connection to history and legacy, and because of the extent to which, as secular Judaism expands, the culture and the food, and the history is such an important touchstone for the next generation and the generation after that.
It really is the foundation to so much that’s at risk and that must not be lost. It’s particularly true when you think about the spirit of charity and giving back that we saw after Sandy. The first store open on the Lower East Side, while there was still power out across the area, was Russ & Daughters. When there were hundreds of seniors stuck in their buildings without power or any way to get out and get water, it was Russ & Daughters that built care packages and worked with my office to deliver them them door-to-door in the neighborhood. And it was Russ & Daughters, Niki and Josh, who called and said, “What more can we do?”
So it’s a great honor to end the evening with the foundation of our culture and, in my view, the foundation of all things good: food, and the way that it connects us to who we are. By that I mean this tradition and institution — Russ & Daughters — and what it means to our city and our people. And of course I mean those three to five hours every year, erev Yom Kippur, that mean more to me and to hundreds of others — all of those who got there first — than just about anything else, and that help connect us to the real depth of our history. Many of us don’t get to experience that every day; but when we do, it really connects us to what matters most about our community, our culture, and our history.
So it’s a great honor to call up Niki Russ Federman, Josh Russ Tupper, and Mark Russ Federman.
A man walks into an appetizing store on the Lower East Side. He breathes in, taking in that characteristic aroma that can only come from the co-mingling of smoked fish, pickled herrings, fresh breads, dried fruits and sweets. He breathes out. “Ah” he says, “I smell Judaism.” True story. And stories like that happen pretty regularly at Russ & Daughters.This coming year, Russ & Daughters will celebrate its 100th anniversary. That’s 100 years and four generations worth of slicing fish, kibbitzing across the counter and obsessing over quality. But it is also 100 years worth of history– history on the Lower East Side, history with our customers and our staff. It’s 100 years worth of brises, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, and inevitably, shivas. We have been honored to serve as a touchstone in people’s lives and to share in these important life events through our food. Because, really, how else do Jews say “I love you,” “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “Mazel tov!” than with a fatty whitefish, a nice herring, bagels and babka?
In a city such as ours, where everything is always changing, Russ & Daughters offers a counterpoint: a sense of continuity. It is the reassuring feeling you get when the pickled lox still tastes the same way it did when you were a child, or the comfort that comes from seeing that Russ & Daughters is still there, its doors open for anyone to enter, whether you’re coming for the first time or for fifty years. There is the saying that, “All roads lead back to Rome,” but when it comes to the Jewish American experience, it appears to us that the roads double back to the Lower East Side and to that tiny storefront on East Houston Street.Running an appetizing business, is a lot of hard work. So, why would four generations of our family be meshugge enough to do it? And by family, that includes not only the Russes, but our incredible team, some of whom are here tonight. Because, though Russ & Daughters may be small in space, it’s big in soul. There is something going on there that is more than a commercial transaction, more than the mere buying and selling of food. It’s a place where relationships are forged, stories are shared, memories resurface and traditions are celebrated.We thank the Foundation for Jewish Culture for honoring us today and for the incredible work that you do. But frankly, you are honoring us for something we love: keeping our culture alive and vibrant through our food.