What Joan Nathan Taught Me About the Power of Showing Up

Three-quarters of the way through a grueling 10-day hospital stay for my older daughter, Orli, the cookbook author Joan Nathan called me from hospital reception. Her daughter, she said, had read about Orli’s latest surgery via social media. Could I come downstairs?

I met Joan in the hospital atrium. Out of her bag she pulled a full Musakhan, the Palestinian chicken dish baked in sumac over pita with pine nuts and onions, Yemenite saffron rice, hamentaschen. In her arms she carried a six-braid German-style challah, studded with nigella seeds. It smelled like joy.

Joan told me about a time, decades earlier, when her own daughter, herself now a mother, was a baby being treated in this hospital. She mentioned moments when others had stepped in to care for her. I couldn’t stay to hear more; every moment away from Orli was one I couldn’t retrieve.

Still, the divinity in Joan’s appearance was not lost on me. She is perhaps the person best known for Jewish cooking in America — she once had a PBS show. Like many others, I knew her first through her books, her columns, my mother’s carefully clipped out recipes. I laid out her beneficence in the paltry hospital parents’ space, a bounty set against the stark light of the half-empty vending machine, the broken coffee maker, my tiny hospital sized ginger ale poured into an even smaller plastic cup. In Orli’s room I set the challah down on a paper plate and took a photo.

Life in the hospital was often grim and boring (once, when an actor in an Elsa costume stopped by, I took a photo and labeled it “Elsa in Hell.”). The worst was returning to a communal refrigerator to discover your own food, from a few weeks prior.

It was startling to receive Joan’s meal, but not entirely surprising. We were not unknown to each other. I interviewed her, once; she belongs to my synagogue. What was shocking was the way, when Orli died one year later, Joan stepped into our lives, unobtrusively but decisively.

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