What Black Friday is to Thanksgiving, Yom Kippur is to Russ & Daughters: the day of the year when shopping becomes, if not a blood sport, then a spectacle worthy of its own half-time show and play-by-play recaps. Although the store achieves a level of more or less consistent chaos throughout the 10-day High Holiday period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, the nine hours leading up to the Day of Atonement are defined by waits and crowds of appropriately biblical proportions.
Yesterday was no exception: two hours after it opened at 8 a.m., the narrow shop had reached full capacity, resembling, appropriately enough, the inside of a sardine tin. A spillover crowd clustered under umbrellas on the sidewalk outside. The steady drizzle did little to deter the majority of people who approached the store to take a number and wait, though there were more than a few exclamations of disbelief. “This is gonna be a three-hour wait,” one woman said to her companion. Another approached the open door before realizing what she was about to get herself and her young son into. “Come on Angelo,” she said. “There’s no way we can go in there. It’s Yom Kippur.”
Most took the wait in stride, informing each other of which number was being served. “Still 43?” said one. “Take a number and come back Monday,” said another.
“I’m 19,” a bespectacled man said to a curly-haired young woman, who replied she had number 38. “I’m not going to be one of those people who doesn’t know what they want to order. I’ll be quick,” the man said with a wink before heading inside.
One Russ employee handed out cups of free coffee. “Free coffee? How about a free bagel?” asked one man, not even half-joking.
Jimmy Carbone, the proprietor of Jimmy’s No. 43, emerged from the store, cup of coffee in hand. “I’ll come back later,” he said, untying his dog, who had been waiting patiently next to one of the store’s benches. A few minutes later, Mark Federman, a third-generation Russ and the store’s elder statesman, came out to greet customers before disappearing back inside.
Behind the front window, Niki Russ Federman and Josh Russ Tupper, the store’s fourth-generation proprietors, took turns slicing sides of lox. Watching their knives slide effortlessly through the bright, glistening flesh was oddly hypnotic; a small group watched them intently, silently. One woman remarked that it was nice to see so many Jews gathered in one place. “Especially these days,” she said, adding that she was there to buy sable, whitefish, two kinds of cream cheese, and bagels for her mother, who had lived in the neighborhood, on Ridge Street, for the past 30 years. “But I feel like I should buy more than I planned to, after this wait,” she said with a laugh.
Inside, the mood was convivial but slightly fraught: behind the counter’s display case, salmon and sable were deconstructed with efficiency, bagels and bialys were bundled into plastic bags, and 10 kinds of cream cheese were stuffed into pint containers. Credit cards were passed back and forth across the top of display case with the regularity of a ping-pong match. All eyes gazed upon the white coats of the counter men and women.
One tall man hovered next to Tupper, who fielded his small talk while slicing impassively. “I came here from London,” the man said. “I came straight from JFK.” It was his yearly ritual, he said; he would come to Russ & Daughters to buy salmon for the friends he stayed with in New York. And he wouldn’t hear of calling it lox. “What’s this lox business? It’s Scottish smoked salmon!” Londoners, it turns out, take their salmon very seriously. “You’ve got to go to Panzer’s,” the man said. “Hamid is the best cutter there. Philip Green, who owns Top Shop, flies his Gulfstream G550 in from Monaco, where he lives, to get his salmon from Panzer’s. If he finds out Hamid hasn’t cut it, he has it all thrown out.” The man’s phone rang. “Hello, darling, I’m at the queue at Russ & Daughters,” he said. “I’ve come all the way from London and they’re making me wait. No favoritism at all!”
“After we opened, we had about 45 minutes when it was quiet,” said Chhapte Sherpa as he rang up an order. “But it’s been like this since the day before yesterday.” He observed that while the number of customers this year was the same as last year, business was running more smoothly, thanks to the presence of the regular staff, rather than workers brought in specifically for the holidays. But although the store would be closed the next day, this was hardly the home stretch. “On Tuesday, we’ll catch up with the orders from the website,” which had been shut down during the pre-Yom Kippur rush. “It’ll be even worse.”