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The Amazing Allure of Russ & Daughters

2014 March 25


Most friends who know me are fully aware that I am not a remotely religious person. I don’t eat on Yom Kippur, I light the candles during Chanukah, and I usually buy a box of Matzo (or, in this year’s case, 5 lbs of it) for Passover. Occasionally, I’ll even bake a loaf of challah for Rosh Hashanah. Honestly, I can’t even remember the last time I was in a synagogue, and no, the tours of ones in Israel don’t count.

I think this is the path most Jews (well, the ones in America, at least) find themselves going down. Back in December, Pew Research published a pretty lengthy study about how Jews in the US view themselves. 30% of US Jews identify as non-denominational! That’s a huge number, and it’s one I am proud to be part of.

Why all the Jew talk? Well, for many Jews in the United States, the connection with Judaism is cultural. We have fantastic Yiddish words, amazing senses of humor (and wonderful stereotypes), and there’s a common link with each other that only fellow Jews can truly comprehend. To other members of the tribe reading this post right now…I’m sure you know exactly what I’m talking about.

For me, personally, there’s another connection–food. Food tends to be the one thing that remains static in today’s society–it has the ability to create a true sense of community among individuals, whether they be friends, family, or even strangers. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been glancing at a menu or looking over pastries and a random person came up to me and recommended something. Maybe that’s the way things flow in New York, but mostly, it’s just the result of bonding over a love of food.

That brings us to Russ & Daughters. A fixture in the Lower East Side since 1929, Russ & Daughters is a Jewish wonderland of smoked fish, breads (bagels and bialys), rugelach, babka, pickles, and so much more. They’re world famous for the quality of their products, and no visit will ever disappoint. More importantly, for me, is that every trip there helps solidify my [cultural] connection with my religion. I have yet to visit and not be sarcastically berated by the staff for something silly and mundane. This kind of attitude is a hallmark of Judaism, and I’ve come to expect and embrace it.

And then, of course, there’s the food. The cheapest smoked salmon (and also my favorite!), gravlox, is expertly-smoked and cured with dill. It runs $36/lb, and is worth every penny. When I was there last week, I picked up some gravlox, a couple of bialys, and R&D’s amazing horseradish-dill cream cheese. Everything was sublime.

Oh, and their sandwiches! Incredible. The Fancey Delancey consists of wasabi roe, smoked tuna, and schmear on a bialy. The Heebster is their amazing baked salmon and whitefish spread with cream cheese, and then there’s the classic–an everything bagel, horseradish dill cream cheese, and lox. Absolute heaven. You can see pretty much everything in the slideshow above–yeah, it’s as good as it looks, and if you’re ever in the city, it’s totally worth the stop.

Anyways, that’s today’s spiel. I guess it turned out to be a little more about Judaism than Russ & Daughters. Basically, it comes down to this: culturally, my religion is important to me. I appreciate what it brings to the table, and I’m thrilled to identify as a Jew. Now, does that mean I’m going to stop eating pork belly, oysters, mussels, or bacon? Of course not. Will I ever go to temple again? Unlikely. But, if someone asks me what religion I am? I’m not going to hesitate with my answer.

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