“There’s borscht in the kitchen today!” dietician Susan Coopersmith called out gaily to a colleague as she swept through the wide halls of the 130-year-old Catholic St. Louis Hospital, located on the outskirts of Jerusalem’s Old City. “I hope the patients like it!”
It was not exactly the kind of announcement I would have expected at a Catholic hospital, but upon reflection, slipping in a bit of Jewish culinary tradition onto the menu of the 50-bed hospice and chronic care hospital run by the congregation of Sisters of St. Joseph of the Apparition fits right in with their mission to minister loving end-of-life care to all residents of the city — Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.
So, while the traditional Jewish-Russian beet soup may seem out of place in most Catholic institutions in the region, its inclusion in the lunch on that day should not have surprised me. After all, after having spent several days visiting I already knew that the most striking thing about St. Louis hospital was how effortlessly they meld so many different cultures, traditions and religions in everything thing do — not always an easy feat in a city so wrought with divisions.
But if in the halls of this hospital, ultra-orthodox Jewish women and Muslim women, with their hair covered in the distinctive style of their religion, walk side by side with habit-wearing nuns and secular Israelis in sleeveless blouses and jeans as they all visit ill or aged loved ones, then why shouldn’t borscht share center stage in the same kitchen with traditional Arabic dishes such as stuffed vegetables?
“We have people here from so many backgrounds it is important to give them foods they like and are familiar with,” explained Coopersmith, a recent Jewish immigrant to Israel from Chicago. Many of the patients in the hospice’s oncology ward are from Russia, she added.
“The food is almost as important as medicine, especially for cancer patients,” she told me. “With chemotherapy treatment they lost much of their sense of taste and can’t eat much. It is very hard to get them to eat.”
Over the past few months, Coopersmith and Palestinian Catholic head cook Eva Soudah, — who oversees the hospital’s kosher kitchen, following Jewish dietary restrictions such as not mixing milk with meat — have been working together along with the Palestinian Muslim assistant cooks to revamp the hospital menu and introduce some new dishes.
Some — stuffed vegetables, ratatouille and spaghetti with tomato sauce — passed the patient’s scrutiny with flying colors, Coopersmith noted. Sweet potatoes and turkey did not. But now it was time for the real test. Would their borscht pass the muster of the discerning Russian patients?
In typical St. Louis fashion, the creation of the soup was a joint collaborative effort involving Jews, Christians and Muslims. I found myself thinking: If only Israeli and Palestinians political leaders could also learn to cooperate just as well for the benefit of others!
The recipe for the soup was provided in Hebrew by the hospital’s Jewish activity director, originally from the Ukraine. Since Soudah speaks only a little bit of Hebrew, the hospital physiotherapist, Basel Baddour, a Greek Orthodox Palestinian who speaks Hebrew, translated the recipe for the Muslim kitchen staff.
I was just as eager as Soudah to see how the patients received her efforts, and I trailed behind Soudah as she brought the lunch cart to the hospice care ward.
“It was not very difficult to make the soup. Just something different,” Soudah smiled, pushing the cart. “There was meat, cabbage onions, carrots, tomato sauce. Now I want to see how the patients inside, the Russians, like it. I want to see if it passes their test.”
“Shalom,” Soudah greeted one of the patients in Hebrew. “How is the soup? We made borscht.”
Dutifully, the woman sipped a spoonful of the hot liquid.
But alas, it seems something got lost in the translation and the main ingredient, the hearty beet that gives the soup its distinctive ruby red color, was missing from the soup.
Still, the patient soothingly told Soudah as she took another taste of the soup: “This is good soup, it just isn’t borscht.”
Once Soudah understood what the missing ingredient was she said, “If you have a recipe you like, bring it to me.”
Undaunted, Soudah told me she will try again next week.