Mark Russ Federman’s maternal grandfather Joel Russ opened Russ’s Cut Rate Appetizing store on the Lower East Side of New York a hundred years ago. Russ, who came this country at age twenty-one in 1907 from Poland, soon turned the Jewish delicatessen over to this three daughters, and the rest is New York deli history: Russ & Daughters today is still on the Lower East Side, is still billed as “appetizing” store, and still specializes in delicacies such as smoked salmon (lox) and pickled herring.
Mark Russ Federman ran the store for thirty years until he recently retired. Before that, he served for three years in the U.S. Army, including a year in the Vietnam War.
Federman describes his brief Army career in his sprightly written family history/memoir, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes from the House That Herring Built (Schocken Books, 205 pp., $25.95). He went to Alfred University in upstate New York in 1962, mainly to get far enough away from the family business to be sure he wouldn’t be asked to work there on weekends.
ROTC was mandatory for male students for two years. Federman opted for four. Most students, he says, “were glad to be done with the drills, the short haircut, and the spit-shined shoes. To this day I can’t answer the question, ‘Why did you volunteer to stay in?’”
Federman graduated in 1966, he writes, “with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, a commission in the United States Army as a second lieutenant, and a deferment to go to law school.” He chose Georgetown Law School over New York University’s—again, to get away from the family business. After receiving his law degree in 1969, Federman faced a two-year commitment. The Army’s “plan,” he writes, “was for me to spend one year at Fort Polk, Louisiana—famous for large mosquitoes and even larger rednecks—and then one year in Vietnam.”
The new law school graduate managed to talk the Army into letting him serve two years at the base of his choice, followed by one year wherever the Army chose to send him. Federman wound up serving two years in San Francisco, duty he characterizes as “an office job with a dress code.” Then came orders for Vietnam. He arrived in country in 1971 and was shipped to an advisory team in “the southernmost part of the Mekong Delta,” replacing “another officer who had been blown up in his Jeep by a Claymore mine.”
His C-130 arrived “in the middle of a rice paddy in the middle of a monsoon in what looked like the end of the world,” he writes. “This was no place for a nice Jewish boy like me. After a month, I was transferred to Saigon and worked as an Army lawyer.”
As for his homecoming, Federman writes: “Like many other returning vets, when I received my discharge from the Army, I threw away my uniform. There were no brass bands welcoming us home. We were led to believe that we should be ashamed of our service, so it took years before we would admit to it.”
Federman soon married, had two children, worked as a Legal Aid lawyer and then as a prosecutor in New York City, but the pull of the family business proved to be too strong. In 1978, he chucked the law and went to work at Russ & Daughters. Today, his son and daughter are the fourth generation of the family to work behind the deli counter.