If These Walls Could Schmooze Read More
Artist Maira Kalman’s mural at Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum pays homage to love, longing, and lox.
Guests dining at Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum may be too busy enjoying platters piled high with the finest smoked fish, bagels, and babka to notice that they are sitting beneath a work of art that expands their art viewing experience at the Jewish Museum to another level.
Nestled on the lower level of the Jewish Museum, the restaurant features a mural titled In This Life There Was Very Much (2015) by the artist Maira Kalman. An assemblage of sketches drawn in black and highlighted with gold, the mural was commissioned by the Jewish Museum as a gift from Edith Weider in honor of her daughter, Rella.
The idea for the artwork came from Claudia Gould, Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of the Jewish Museum. Gould had initiated bringing Russ & Daughters to the Jewish Museum, and approached Kalman about creating the mural for it. A customer of the store since her days as a student at New York University, the artist readily agreed. “It was just delightful, fresh, and new; spirited and smart,” said Kalman of the opportunity to combine the stories of the Jewish Museum and Russ & Daughters in the mural at Gould’s behest.
The composite of sketches that became Kalman’s mural were chosen from 115 drawings acquired for the Jewish Museum collection; approximately 80 were then arranged on the restaurant’s walls and embellished by the artist herself.
Kalman began the research process by immersing herself in the history of the appetizing shop. Appetizing shops began as specialized food stores catering to the needs of Jewish immigrants who kept kosher, which requires the separation of milk and meat. Delicatessens, called “delis” for short, sold meat products such as pastrami, while appetizing stores specialized in dairy and fish, such as lox, allowing those practicing kashrut to observe dietary laws.
As her research progressed, Kalman said:
“There were so many different roads to go down, I couldn’t have been happier. It combined all the things I love the most: Being sent on an assignment to do research, observe, and watch; a food place, which is my favorite kind of place to work in; the history of New York, the history of eating, and the history of Eastern Europe.”
Founded by Joel Russ, an Eastern European Jewish immigrant to New York, Russ & Daughters began out of a pushcart in 1907. By 1914, the business was established as a storefront on the Lower East Side. Russ was soon joined by his daughters, Hattie, Ida, and Anne, and it is believed to be the first business with “& Daughters” in its name. Russ & Daughters is now led by 4th generation family owners (and Joel Russ’s great-grandchildren) Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper. All four generations of Russ family owners are featured on the wall.
The unique cultural significance of Russ & Daughters in the history of New York City proved inspirational to Kalman, as did her own experience as a customer. In her time as a client of the store, Kalman’s own taste in smoked fish — a classic staple of the Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine that’s made Russ & Daughters beloved for generations — evolved from nova to herring.
“As a child I hated herring, all forms of herring, until one day I woke up ten years ago and loved herring, “ admitted Kalman. “My family was from Belarus and they ate a lot of herring. As a kid I hated it, but now I can’t get enough. I’m so happy herring is in my life.”
Her love of the fish is evident in the mural’s illustrations.
Kalman spent hours at the Russ & Daughters Cafe and store downtown on the Lower East Side, sketching food and customers, poring over their archives, and observing the counter people in their trademark white lab coats.
“I take a million photographs and then see what I like,” said Kalman, describing her work process. “It’s from the details of the fork being plunged into the herring, the knife cutting it, the wax paper. ”
Kalman arranged scans of individual sketches on a blank wall as the restaurant at the Jewish Museum was being constructed, by taping copies of the original drawings against the wall, and grouping them together. The final configuration of drawings was photographed and made into a custom wallpaper. Once installed, she added a layer of illustration with gold paint.
“I wanted to add a little glimmer,” Kalman noted. “A little light.” The final version of the mural can only be seen on the restaurant’s wall.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1949 and raised in New York City, Kalman is a uniquely versatile artist whose work spans illustration, design, and writing. In 2011, the Jewish Museum presented Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), an exhibition highlighting her ability to transcend genres. Regarding her approach to illustration, Kalman has reflected:
“There is a strong personal narrative aspect of what I do. What happens in my life is interpreted in my work. There is very little separation. My work is my journal of my life.”
Interweaving the personal and professional is also an important aspect of the Russ & Daughters legacy. Kalman said her research often felt like a homecoming to her own family’s tradition of gathering for large meals around Jewish holidays and the food that was shared on those occasions.
Niki Russ Federman was delighted to spend time observing Kalman at work.
“I spent time with Maira at the shop, at the café, in our office flipping through old pictures, and walking the streets of the Lower East Side,” Niki recalled. “It’s fascinating to see how those moments ended up in the final mural. Most people don’t recognize me or the other known ‘characters’ in the mural. I think they speak to the universality of family, memory, ancestry, culture, and food.”
As for the question they get asked most often about the Kalman mural, Josh Russ Tupper laughed: “We get asked if it’s available as wallpaper and if so, where they can get it.”
For your next visit, here’s a guide to some of the figures in the mural:
Mark Russ Federman
Niki Russ Federman’s father and Josh Russ Tupper’s uncle was the third-generation owner of Russ & Daughters, inheriting it from his mother Anne, founder Joel Russ’s youngest daughter. His memoir, Russ & Daughters, Reflections and Recipes from the House that Herring Built is available at the Jewish Museum Shop, along with other Russ & Daughters merchandise.
Zero Mostel, the actor who originated the role of Tevye in the classic Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, was a devoted customer of the store. A portrait of Mostel by photographer Arnold Newman is part of the Jewish Museum’s collection. The performer held a special place for generations of the Russ family. Niki recalled:
“Family legend goes that he wanted to marry one of the Russ daughters, but my great-grandfather, Joel Russ, quashed that idea very quickly. According to him, Zero was a meshugenah not cut out for hard work. My great-grandfather only cared about sons-in-law who would come into the business. Apparently, there were no hard feelings, even for my grandfather Herb, who was approved for marriage into the family. One of my favorite photographs is of Zero and Herb hugging while lighting each other’s cigars.”
Igor Stravinsky, Musicians, and Dancers
Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky is considered one the most influential figures in music of the 20th century. He came to the United States in 1939, and became a citizen in 1945. A frequent muse to Maira Kalman, she also featured his name in her series of books about Max the Dog Poet, which are available at the Jewish Museum Shop. Stravinsky died in New York, at the age of 88 in 1971.
“I don’t know if he ever ate at Russ & Daughters,” said Kalman. “But he might have! The drama and the romance of performance is an intersection with food and looking at the history of anything,” said Kalman of her unexpected source of inspiration. “I found an opportunity to put in musicians, dancers, and other characters sitting in cafes in Eastern Europe. They were the faces of people I saw at the restaurant or at the store, or the faces of people who should have been there.”
Rella Wieder’s Cat
When Edith Wieder gave the commission for the mural in honor of her daughter, she requested that Rella’s cat be included in the art. Kalman was given the pet’s picture and depicted the cat throughout the sketches. The feline is immortalized in the mural, delighted to romp about with the fish.
— Writer: Ruth Andrew Ellenson
— Illustration Composites: Leo Brooks and Eric Markus
Maira Kalman’s mural In This Life There Was Very Much is on view now at Russ & Daughters at the Jewish Museum, on the lower level of the Museum. Explore Kalman’s original drawings in the Jewish Museum collection online.