The Jewish Museum
Russ & Daughters
“Alts ken der mensch fargesn nor nit esn.”
A person can forget everything but eating.
This Yiddish aphorism sets the tone at Russ & Daughters, the legendary Jewish “appetizing” store on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which in 1914 brought the familiar food of the old country to the nearly one million Jews who lived at the Lower East Side in crowded quarters. One hundred odd years later, the fourth generation of Russ & Daughters has brought its smoked fish, herring, blintzes, bagels, and knishes to The Jewish Museum on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “A great shidduch”, (match) everyone agrees.
Entering the brightly lit dining room on the museum’s lower level, you catch sight of a 20-foot mural with hundreds of whimsical drawings and witty observations by the artist Maira Kalman, known for her sense of humor.
“In life, there’s much to do…” she observes.
Looking at the menu, that’s exactly how I feel. From cured, baked, and smoked salmon, to Wild Western Nova, Gaspé Nova, Gravlax, pastrami cured salmon, belly lox, there are seven different salmon preparations alone!
Fortunately, there is a lot of table camaraderie among diners.
“Excuse me,” says the woman at the table next to mine, pointing to my plate, “What did you order?”
“It’s called the Daughters Bagel Toast,” I say, as if that explains anything. Meanwhile, I look enviously at the orders delivered to the couple at the table to my right. According to the waiter, they ordered one EGGS BENNY and one FANCY DELANCEY. Turns out they don’t like the sauce that comes with Eggs Benny and insist that the waiter brings some other dressings.
This is a tough crowd!
I feel most at home with the HERRING selections. The Pickled Herring Trio, served on pumpernickel, is my favorite. The Shot in the Schmaltz Herring refers to a shot of vodka. A separate menu offers wine, including champagne, cocktails, and beer. Most people opt for water, tea, coffee, or Coca-Cola.
The one-page menu is divided into NOSHES (small dishes), BOARDS (open-face sandwiches), PLATTERS (to be shared), SWEETS and DRINKS.
Prices are steep but include gratuity. Yet the service is so pleasant, most customers tip anyway.
I like to come on Wednesdays when the museum is closed. The one time I came with a friend on a Thursday, it was mayhem. Rather than wait for half-an-hour before we could be seated, we went to the adjacent take-out counter to buy sandwiches. When the sales clerk realized we didn’t know salmon A from B, he treated us to a Salmon Tasting 101 that should be mandatory.
The Jewish Museum originated in 1904 with an initial donation of 26 ceremonial objects to the Jewish Theological Seminary. Over the years, donations and acquisitions increased to such an extent, it needed a new home. That home became available when Mrs. Felix Warburg of the Warburg banking family offered the family’s mansion for the museum’s use. After various extensions and alterations, The Jewish Museum opened on May 8, 1947, on Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street.
From the start, The Jewish Museum has presented wide-ranging, sometimes ground-breaking exhibits. However, the heart of The Jewish Museum is the permanent collection which encompasses 4,000 years of Jewish history.
At the gift shop, I see a book: How to Raise a Jewish Dog.
The title alone speaks volumes.
Between their resiliency and gallows humor, the Jewish journey will continue to thrive for another thousand years.
Surprisingly enough, a new restaurant called LOX opened recently at The Museum of Jewish Heritage downtown.