Builders and Cooks: The Hadassah Palate

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Builders and Cooks: The Hadassah Palate

Joan Nathan

Joan Nathan in the kitchen.
Photograph by Kristian Whipple.

Although I can’t remember when I first heard the name Hadassah, my real interest in the Women’s Zionist Organization of America started in my midtwenties when I was writing my first cookbook.

At the time, the early 1970s, I had what I considered the best day job in the world as foreign press attaché for the late Teddy Kollek, the legendary longtime mayor of Jerusalem. It was my task to introduce Jerusalem to foreign journalists, trying to show them a more human view of the Israeli occupation after the Six-Day War.

As a lark, Judy Stacey Goldman, a friend and coworker, and I decided to write a cookbook looking at the foods of Jerusalem. We would call it the Flavor of Jerusalem and, after sending it to 13 publishers, it finally found a home at Little, Brown. The book sold 25,000 copies, launching my career as a food writer. For me, food has always been a great equalizer and, indeed, my writing is based on the human side of food.

In some ways, my lifelong quest started with Hadassah. When I first visited the new Hadassah–Hebrew University Medical Center at Ein Kerem (it opened in 1961), I learned how difficult it was to run a food service at a hospital where people came from some 140 different ethnic backgrounds, many of them adhering to very strict religious dietary laws. Think about it. Today, we have lactose intolerance, gluten and nut allergies, etc. But, in the 1970s, Hadassah was serving thousands of meals daily for people whose culinary preferences were quite diverse: Kurds, Arabs, Western Europeans, Americans, just to name a few. The staff had enough to do serving special medical diets without adding cultural diets.

Even back then, the staff was besieged by special requests for food. Typical were men who asked for “a little bit of their wife’s chicken soup” for Shabbat. Nurses had to explain that no one could bring in his own food, no matter how kosher, because some people would bring in just a little bit of nonkosher chicken, thereby offending more strictly observant patients. The late Billy Rose, an impresario and lyricist who wrote “Me and My Shadow” and for whom the sculpture garden at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is named, wanted to bring his own chef from France to fry an egg “properly” when Rose was a patient at Hadassah Hospital. Rose left when the hospital denied his request.

Dietary restrictions were difficult on Shabbat but impossible around Yom Kippur for the sick. Medical reasons prohibited hundreds of the 600 patients (there are over 1,000 now) from fasting. On the first Yom Kippur after the hospital opened, the late Dr. Jack Karpas, assistant director of the hospital at the time, consulted a learned rabbi for advice. The rabbi pondered the question for a few minutes and consulted the Shulhan Arukh. Then he said that very sick patients could each receive about one ounce of food every eight minutes during the fast day—thus ensuring that the patients would be eating on an empty stomach (a requisite for observance of the fast day) and still be getting needed nourishment. Dr. Karpas protested that it would be impossible to measure food every eight minutes for hundreds of people on an ordinary day, much less on the Day of Atonement with a skeletal staff. The rabbi answered that he had explained how to carry out the order and thus done his rabbinical duty. “Now do what you want,” he said with a wink.

I did the research on the hospital on my own time, but Teddy, as everyone called the mayor, filled me in on the importance of Hadassah, the organization, before a delegation of Hadassah women arrived from New York. “If you think I am your boss, you are wrong,” he said. “It is the Hadassah ladies who run Jerusalem.”

Not exactly. But he truly admired the intelligence and tenacity of Hadassah volunteers and deeply appreciated the contributions they made to all the people of Jerusalem. Women like Esther Gottesman, Rose Halprin and Miriam Freund-Rosenthal were great mentors for me. And I can vividly recall, during my many visits to Hadassah Hospital, being struck by the mixture of Arab and Jewish patients and staff and the high caliber and caring manners of the workers.

Another memory of Hadassah came much later. I was in Jerusalem covering the city’s 3,000th anniversary for The New York Times. Great chefs from America like Paul Prudhomme and the late Jean Louis Palladin joined with French three-star chefs like Joel Robuchon to make a glorious kosher meal for 300 people for the occasion. A young, adorable sabra from Hadassah College of Technology was helping Chef Pierre Troisgros of Troisgros in Roanne prepare for the dinner. They were peacefully sitting next to each other at a table carefully plucking chervil leaf by leaf to garnish a dish of eggplant and sea bream from the Red Sea. This was clearly upscale food, the kind that dazzles: a 10-course kosher meal. As Chef Troisgros said, and I reported for The Times, “This dinner is the rencontre of nouvelle cuisine with the Old Testament.”

But Hadassah is basically an American organization with American appetites and food traditions. As I think about the past 100 years and glance in my library at the many Hadassah fundraising cookbooks put out by local chapters, one recipe seems to me quintessentially Hadassah. Taken from a North Shore Chicago Hadassah cookbook is Lick-Your-Fingers Kugel, with caramelized pecans at the bottom of a tube pan. Recipes like this elicit memories, laughter, stories and the binding together of generations, as does the work that Hadassah has done for generations. Happy 100th anniversary!

North Shore Chicago Hadassah’s Lick-Your-Fingers Kugel
Adapted from Jewish Cooking in America (Knopf). Serves 10-12.

1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) salted butter
or pareve margarine
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup toasted pecans, halved
1 pound wide noodles
4 large eggs
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup sugar
2 tsps salt
1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Melt the butter in microwave. Take half the butter and put it in a 12-cup mold or tube pan. Swirl it around the bottom and up the sides. Set aside the remaining butter.
2. Press the brown sugar into the bottom of the mold or pan, then press the pecans into the sugar.
3. Boil the noodles according to package directions, then drain. Mix noodles with the eggs, remaining butter, cinnamon, sugar and salt. Pour noodle mixture into the mold or pan.
4. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes or until the top is brown. Let sit for 15 minutes before unmolding. The top will be slightly hard like a praline. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Joan Nathan, the author of 10 cookbooks, first lived in Jerusalem from 1970 to 1972.

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