Beth El Sisterhood stepped up to “Serve” Joan Nathan

Call them a well “oyled” machine.

I am speaking of the quartet of Carol Smith, DeAnne Lindsey, Gina Rose, and Marlene Rossen who (along with Patty Shelanski) lead the unofficial culinary committee of the Congregation Beth El Sisterhood that plans, purchases, cooks, and bakes the meals for all special occasions at the synagogue – some 30 a year.

Two recent ones were within two weeks of each other, a retirement brunch on April 7 for longtime administrator Pam Gladstone, which was meaningful and lovely, preceded by the annual Mickey Kramer Scholar in Residence Program March 15-17, which was both beautiful and vexing at times. “We actually had three events for Kramer – a Friday night dinner, a Shabbat lunch and a Sunday morning breakfast,” says Rose. But it was the identity of the scholar, best-selling cookbook author, journalist, and TV documentarian Joan Nathan, that made that assignment one the women won’t soon forget.
Dubbed the “matriarch of Jewish cooking by the Jerusalem Post,” Nathan shared her wisdom with several hundred congregants and guests and promoted her latest publication, My Life in Recipes: Food, Family & Memories, which chronicles her personal discovery of Jewish cuisine from around the world. But it was the Sisterhood ladies who really brought the goods, i.e. a half dozen or so dishes from one or more of the 81-year-old Nathan’s 10 cookbooks.

“We spent some three weeks preparing for the weekend, and I personally devoted 60 hours the final week to make sure it went off without a hitch,” says Smith, the leader of this pack. “Carol is amazing,” says Lindsey, “so organized, so creative, and so dependable.” One reason is Smith’s math skills. “A former teacher, she can look at ingredients for five and convert it in her head to what’s needed for a 100.”

Smith generally chooses the menus. “For instance I decided we would have Baked Salmon in Herb Sauce with Moroccan Matbucha on Friday evening,” two of the thousands of recipes that Nathan has collected and published over her career. As always, Smith’s buddies helped with the shopping. “I always find most of what we need at Restaurant Depot,” she says. “What they don‘t have, DeAnne (a former speech pathologist), Gina (once a rec therapist and volunteer puppy raiser) and Marlene (a retired fund raising professional) find at BJ’s, Costco, or other stores that sell OU items,” says Rossen. “Thank goodness we all love each other because we’re calling, texting, or emailing constantly.”

Joan Nathan and Carol Smith.

I was at Beth El that Saturday and was blown away by the spread that included Sacred Species Salad and Veggie Lasagna plus Crustless Apple Crumb Cake. Most of the women’s angst, however, came not from hoping to impress me, but Nathan herself who was leisurely enjoying the meal and making new friends. “We taste tested everything first to be sure Joan would approve,” recalls Rose. “It was great for (my husband) Neil who loved the desserts I brought home.”

After kiddush, we attacked the buffet, but all eyes were also on Joan Nathan. Would she savor what the Sisterhood served? “It’s all excellent,” she told me. So good that the food scholar took a tray of lasagna home to DC where she hopefully shared some kind words about the catering talent at a conservative shul on Shirley Avenue in Norfolk.

Oh, one other thing. On the Friday of the Kramer Scholar’s Weekend, while the women were knocking themselves out in the Myers Hall kitchen, the Health Department showed up to conduct a surprise inspection. “We passed with flying colors,” says Smith, “thanks mostly to our terrific synagogue staff.” Crisis averted. On to the next simcha