According to Leo Rosten, Yiddish’s Claude Lévi-Strauss, a mensch is “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character.” A mensch would not, for instance, copy the signage and branding of another business and pass it off as his own. That would be the action of a gonif or, perhaps, a mamzer. And yet, recently, when the self-described celebrity chef Nick Liberato, host of Netflix’s Restaurants on the Edge, announced plans to open a Jewish delicatessen called the Borscht Belt in Stockton, New Jersey, a small town 145 miles south of the Catskills, he did so standing in front of a light box on which was written the phrase “Be a mensch.”
That a nearly identical sign hangs in the century-old Russ & Daughters on Manhattan’s Lower East Side did not seem to trouble Liberato. Nor did the other visual similarities that mark much of his new enterprise’s aesthetic. In another image, Liberato stands proudly before a display that would look familiar to anyone who has visited the iconic appetizing shop. In a light box with brushed-metal shelves, a bold sans-serif font declares the foodstuffs of the Eastern European Jewish diaspora: “Lox. Caviar. Smoked Fish. Latkes.”
Though Liberato seemed unperturbed, the same could not be said of Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman, the fourth-generation owners of Russ & Daughters. On May 20, the pair wrote an open letter to Liberato, which read, in part, “We are very supportive of anyone who wants to open a business, especially during such challenging times. However, it is deeply disheartening that you have chosen to do so by copying our iconic design and messaging.” They went on to the sickest of burns, tartly informing Liberato that Russ & Daughters is not a deli, but an appetizing, “one of New York’s quintessential culinary traditions. You are copying us without credit or an understanding of the food tradition we uphold, while couching your plagiarism as ‘homage’ to some bygone era that has disappeared.”
A general hullabaloo soon followed. Hundreds of comments poured in. “Lame,” lamented Mordechai Shlomo Rubinstein, a.k.a. the streetwear photographer @mistermort. “This is so messed up,” agreed financial influencer Haley Sacks, @mrsdowjones. “The truth of the matter is this isn’t the first time it has happened,” says Russ Federman. “In the last six or seven years, this has occurred about five times across the country.”
Indeed, one need only scan recent entries into the nostalgic new wave of Ashkenazi dining to see how closely the Russ & Daughters aesthetic has been aped. Frankel’s Delicatessen in Greenpoint, Emerald City Bagels in Atlanta, and Wexler’s Deli in Los Angeles all bear unlicensed snippets of R&D’s DNA. Many, in fact, cite Russ & Daughters as inspo. For instance, Jackie Halcrow, co-owner of Emerald City, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “Everything [Russ & Daughters does] is great, and we pay homage to them, heavily. Our whitefish salad sandwich is very similar to one they have on their menu.”
This aggravates the Russ family to no end. “You can’t say, ‘I’m paying homage,’ and use that as your protection to cover yourself from the fact that you are just plagiarizing,” says Russ Federman. “Enough is enough,” chimes in Russ Tupper. For the Russ family, some things, like delicatessen cookies and the lettering affixed to light boxes advertising lox, are black and white. “All we want,” says Russ Federman, “is for Nick to do the right thing and be a mensch.”
Shortly after the Russ & Daughters letter went public, the Borscht Belt posted a statement of its own via Instagram. “Nick Liberato is one of the most humble, honest and caring people you can be around and this is a passion project to get closer to the Jewish-American Culture,” it read in part. “His wife is an NYC-born-and-raised Jewish woman and his children are being raised Jewish.” It continued, “To be clear, Russ and Daughter’s [sic] is not the only Appetizing venue in NYC with lightboxes. ‘Be a Mensch’ is a phrase that was used by one of our owner’s Grandmothers to instill lessons in him as a child.” His response was soon pilloried by food media personalities, including The New Yorker’s Helen Rosner and noted rabble-rouser Joe Rosenthal, who decried Liberato’s cultural appropriation. Soon afterward, the restaurant’s page was made private and the post was deleted. It seemed the affair had, at least temporarily, gone quiet.
But late on Friday night, Liberato himself responded on his own Instagram page, in yet another post that has since been deleted. In it, he stood before a neon admonition to “Be a mensch” and questioned whether Russ & Daughters could really claim to have invented the phrase. “Generations of relatives (yours and ours) have been lovingly using this iconic and instructional catchphrase forever. We didn’t get the idea from you,” he wrote. “To claim that an aesthetic as universally iconic as lightboxes surrounded by metal and hand painted signs in capital letters is your intellectual property is intellectually dishonest. It’s a visual language as American as apple pie,” he continued, citing the Automats of yore. “Given the current events in our international community,” he concluded, “Jewish culture should be more supportive of one another, not tearing each other down.”
This response, too, is ripe for critique, from using the suffering of Palestinians to lecture Russ & Daughters on what Jewish culture should be to insisting that his branding references not delis or appetizings but bygone Automats. Claiming that unless the phrase “Be a mensch” was first uttered by Russ & Daughters, then it’s fair game, is akin to a sneaker start-up whose tagline is “Just Do It” pleading, “Well, my grandparents told me to do things,” when Nike’s lawyers come calling.
At its heart, the kerfuffle seems to be about blitheness and entitlement and what we owe to those who came before us. Even if Liberato is not guilty of infringement — which he is — he is, at a minimum, guilty of a certain droit du seigneur mentality by which the world of delicatessen is seen as his to take from. Whether accompanied by words of professed adoration or not, the effect is unchanged. Perhaps he is correct. Perhaps this, like his “visual language,” is “as American as apple pie.” But it is not right.
As the weekend dragged on, Liberato seems to have struck a more conciliatory tone. Late on Sunday, @theborschtbelt posted yet another Instagram missive, this one an intriguing mix of mea culpa and grievance. “We have recently been made aware that a couple of years ago you were granted some protections on your design,” it began, before promising to make “design choices to remedy this before our Grand Opening.” But in the same caption, the company lamented that the original post caused Russ & Daughters’ followers to dish out “anti-Semitic comments, discriminatory comments against Italian-Americans … and creating threats of physical harm to Nick and his family.”
The offending deli offered a way forward: “We are sure you are good people … we kindly ask that you remove your post immediately, and both the Borscht Belt and Nick Liberato will follow your lead and do the same.” As of publication, both the original bill of attainder and the most recent of Liberato’s defenses still stand.