A delicatessen documentary makes me cry : “The Sturgeon Queens”


A documentary about a delicatessen in the lower east side that survived for more than 100 years provoked tears from me today.

It was about the family that still runs a deli on the lower east side of New York called “Russ and Daughters.” Documentarian, Julie Cohen interviewed Hattie Russ Gold, 100, and Anne Russ Feldman 92 , the daughters of the original owners, who took an active part in the business. The current owners, Joshua Russ Tuper and Nikki Russ Federman were also interviewed.

Cohen  also interviewed some loyal customers including Maggie Gyllenhall, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Food is a powerful drug: it fills us up, and works on our emotions too. Sometimes, it can remind us of a happy childhood.

The Deli was celebrating 100 years! It is a true testament to that family to have kept it going so long.

If you have this in your background, I’d suggest seeing this documentary. Warning: it may make you cry.

Traveling in a time machine

Me grandpa, Harry Zelivyansky

My Grandmother, Miriam Zelivyansky when she was young.

It brought back memories of my grandparents, and the extended family I came from. Although she was born in the United States, my mother’s first language was Yiddish. She didn’t speak much English until she entered kindergarten. My mother had 3 brothers and 1 sister. When I was a little child we often got together.

My grandfather was a small, handsome, man who learned the craft of tole painting in the old country, and liked to sing. Grandpa had a headful of white hair, and stood up very straight. I knew all the members of the family respected him. Their children called them “ma and pa.”

My grandmother was a stout lady who I do remember hugging every Sunday when we came to visit. My mother and I would also take Grandma shopping at the local grocery store every Thursday. When I was being good, she would hand me a square of Dentyne gum. I’d carefully unwrap it, anticipating that burst of flavor.

I remember going to their house every Sunday and visiting them. Sometimes I didn’t want to, but I knew they were an essential part of our lives. My grandpa would watch me sing and twirl my skirt. They had a stained glass window in their house, and I liked to look at it, and imagine another family living on the other side of it.

Although  both my grandparents spoke English to me, their main language was Yiddish. Sometimes, when my mother didn’t want me to know what she was saying, she’d speak Yiddish to both of them.  She also would also loudly argue with my grandmother in her native tongue, but never my grandpa.

They came to our house for every holiday.  We’d have to pick them up at their house, and my grandma would say, “is the machine (car) ready for us?”

My grandma never made us any meals. The closest thing she would come to was offering fruit. My mother always said, “She’s tired from feeding 5 kids for years, and is now retired.”

I know my mother really liked food Jewish style.  She made a few Jewish things: real matzoh ball soup, and chopped liver. Other than that, she got it from Cleveland, Ohio, Jewish eateries like: Davis Bakery, Corky & Lenny’s and Solomon’s.

Why did a movie about a delicatessen provoke tears?

One way my mother shared the Jewish culture with me was through the food.

Every weekend, my mother bought the traditional Jewish food : tongue, pastrami, and corned beef. She also bought some bakery items like: chocolate cupcakes and coconut bars. She also got a dozen bagels, and a loaf of rye bread. For herself, she’d buy some creamed herring which I found revolting. She must have bought the same thing every weekend because I distinctly remember the white paper, boxes, and the smell of the whole stash of food. Later in my life I developed a taste for the herring and the salty lox.

When she was at the end of her life, I would try to return the favor by taking her out to a deli and helping her order a tongue sandwich on rye bread. By then, she was blind, and not the same woman I’d grown up admiring. But, she still enjoyed a good tongue sandwich, and was still attempting to be fiercely independent.

And so that’s why a movie about a delicatessen on the lower east side of New York provoked tears from me. A deli where people still come to feel that sense of family. A place where the help spoke Yiddish to the customers.

That side of life is nothing I will ever see again. It’s gone. Just like my parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles.

Me and my cousin Sheridan with mom's sister, Lil and her husband Al

Me and my cousin Sheridan with mom’s sister, Lil and her husband Al

L to r: L to R : Aunt Lillian, Uncle Sam, mom, Uncle Phil (blonde) & Uncle Phil

L to r:
L to R : Aunt Lillian, Uncle Sam, mom, Uncle Phil (blonde) & Uncle Phil

My sister Marilyn and me with my Dad outside of Grandma and Grandpa's house,

My sister Marilyn and me with my Dad outside of Grandma and Grandpa’s house,

L to R: Eileen, Dad holding me, and Marilyn.

L to R: Eileen, Dad holding me, and Marilyn.

Mom's brothers and sisters getting older

Mom’s brothers and sisters getting older