Madam Secretary Reflects on International Relations and Happy Happenstance

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The Ring of Kerry. My photo.

WELL, MY FRIENDS, IT’S MARCH, and I’m sure we all agree that Old Man Winter has way, way overstayed his welcome.

I thought I would be serving tea at a place in the city. Instead, I’m working in our office so my dad can make up for lost time in the fields, and my current occupation doesn’t involve traveling to anywhere except the post office. (It’s like doing laundry: you sort through the junk mail, code the invoices, file the vouchers, try to decipher heavy Asian accents on the phone, empty the waste baskets and get everything tidied away for a little while, and then you start over again.)

I’ve always said that administration is not my thing.

The joke is on me, as usual.

Anyway, I’m bored, and thinking of tea and travel makes me nostalgic, so I’m going to ramble about foreign countries and things that are none of my business.

I’m not a politician–just a farmer’s daughter. But Ireland and Israel are like strangers who keep crossing my path and bumping into each other, and I feel like they should be friends.

I had the joy of spending Christmas 2014 in Ireland with my sister’s husband’s family. Dublin looked like a bloom of glowing plankton from the sky, the night we flew in. I woke up at three o’clock the first morning and didn’t know where I was until I tuned into an Irish radio station. Billy Joel was singing “Just The Way You Are,” and that song has had a special place in my heart ever since.

Jet lag conspired with short, drizzly days to make me feel slightly drugged. I was told that the sitting room window, facing the main street, was better than TV, and when ruby coals were tinkling like glass on the hearth it was a cozy place to nap. As soon as I had my bearings and some euros, I went next door to the tiny shop where the locals bought their bacon crisps and Weetabix. The owner was a soft-spoken, fifty-something bachelor who had never been out of the county. “Hello, Emily… How are ye this morning? … Oh grand, just grand… Try that loaf over there to the left, Emily. It’s a little fresher… So tell me, Emily, what do ye think of all this caper about global warming?”

(Madam Secretary actually doesn’t have an opinion about global warming.)

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The view from my room.

The rippling fields were dotted with sheep and divvied up like a patchwork quilt. Cottages were painted every color of the rainbow. Pubs were superabundant. The snaking roads had walls and hedges instead of shoulders, and with an Irish driver behind the wheel it was a lot like being on a roller coaster. Smoke from turf fires filled the winter air with a musty smell. Feet got clammy at night. Kitchen windows fogged up at teatime.

The teakettle was always piping hot, the tea was strong, and we drank gallons of it. I was the guest of honor, so I was always served first and offered the best seat. I downed my tea, listening to village gossip, smiling for no particular reason, nodding politely. There was a steady flow of visitors. Tea was poured, sweets were passed around, and later someone might open a bottle. Then the story-telling would begin, and once it began it was almost impossible to stop.

I poked around mossy ruins. I got a tweed tie for my dad. I ate bangers n’ mash, fish n’ chips, and scones with jam and globs of clotted cream.

I broke out the black velvet and pearls for a wedding at an elegant hotel. (If that was the Irish idea of casual, I wondered, what would formal be like?) My two-year-old niece danced her little half-Irish heart out. The lake by the hotel was like a mirror it was so calm, and there were swans gliding through a pale pink mist … straight out of a fairytale.

I drank tea with my sister’s husband’s friend’s mother one day. She was the widow of a man who was involved with the IRA during The Troubles. I told her that Israel was next on my agenda, and she told me, to my surprise, that her mother had happened to live there during the British Mandate.

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Three months later, I woke up in Jerusalem.

It was Passover 2015. I heard doves cooing, and church bells. I saw a patched bomb crater in the mosaic-patterned linoleum on my bedroom floor.

I knew where I was.

Scheherazade, my mother’s friend’s cousin’s wife, stuck her head in through the door. She was fluent in English, Arabic, and Hebrew and had a naughty sense of humor. “Emily?” she whispered sweetly, “Do you take sugar in your coffee? No? Good, because we don’t have any.”

Scheherazade brought me a mug of instant coffee, spiced with cardamom, and my sister called from the states to tell us that she was expecting her second baby.

I stretched the soreness of travel out of my body and relaxed even more deeply into the comfort of my bed. “God!” I sighed, “I’m going to die from happiness! Why are you so good to me?”

Jerusalem was exotic and intense. And yet it was familiar.

Though I’m not used to city life, and though I felt like a baby, learning everything over and getting lost in the claustrophobic stone streets of the Old City, I was surprised by my calmness and lack of emotion. It was hard to believe that so many miraculous things had happened in that modern beehive full of busy, tired people. When I was hanging laundry on the roof or watching an impromptu game of soccer in the parking lot or listening to the chant of a dozen minarets echoing eerily through the valleys around Zion, it was hard to believe reports that thousands of Iranian missiles were aimed in our direction.

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West Bank traffic jam. Bikers rule.

I had never felt so alive as we cruised across the Negev desert, past date palm plantations and Bedouins watering their camels at the random gas station. The elevation in that area was far below sea level, so perhaps my energy could be attributed to a high density of oxygen (I’m not sure, but it was easy breathing anyway). Wild hollyhocks nodded their shining heads on the sunny hillsides of Samaria. Israeli farmers had already cut their first crop of hay, and the wheat fields already had the half-ripe patina color that is so very beautiful.

We visited the Holocaust museum on my birthday, and it made me suddenly homesick, but my mother’s friend’s brother went out into the miserable, soaking rain and rented My Fair Lady to cheer me up–which was “loverly” (as Eliza Doolittle would say).

Major Amir Tsarfati says that God designed Israel to stand alone, so the whole world will know it’s Him when He preserves them.

I believe it.

Actually, people who identify as ethnic Jews today only represent a few of the original twelve tribes of Israel who were led out of slavery in Egypt and back to the Promised Land by Moses in the Book of Exodus. The rest were scattered throughout the world and absorbed into other nations (“lost”) during the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles. This is what’s known as the Diaspora (“dispersion”).

Judaism is not what it was in biblical times, and Jews come in many different stripes. The secular Jew is tough, intense, and slow to trust. He has the Midas touch. He likes to negotiate. He keeps his guns clean and eats salad for breakfast. The religious Jew inhabits a structured lifestyle in which absolutely nothing is meaningless. The bottle dance is a real thing (for all you fans of Fiddler On The Roof). He pushes his black hat back in warm weather, unbuttons the collar of his white shirt, and leans against the street lamps, twirling his ringlets around his fingers.

I’m speaking as an outsider, of course, and being simplistic, but that was the general vibe.

Sabbath was a weekly phenomenon in Jerusalem. Every Friday, at dusk, the city’s normal business and din was replaced by a reverent hush. Work stopped for 24 hours while observant people stayed home with their families, and this peace was good for the non-observant as well. I appreciated it more than the history, the falafel, the street music, or anything else about Jerusalem. (I described my impressions of the city further in Beautiful Beulah, A Letter To The Man In Orange, and No, I’m Not A Chain Smoker…)

There were a dozen people to a toilet at our house.

The room next to mine was rented by an elderly Jewish scholar named Aryeh. He was like a child in his sincerity and spoke English with a perfect British accent. He wanted to marry a blind woman who had been one of the Nazi’s medical guinea pigs in Auschwitz, but her family disapproved of him because he believed that Jesus is the Messiah. He, along with some other scholars, happened to be convinced that Irish people belong to the lost tribes of Israel. He was so sure of this theory that he listened to Celtic music, drank Barry’s tea, and prayed for Ireland every day.

I’ll never forget the night when Aryeh and a mysterious friend were drinking tea under the lemon trees in the courtyard, talking military strategy and political science in plastic chairs and moth-eaten sweaters, with Temple Mount shining in the background… The air was laced with wisteria and barbecue and the sweet smoke from hookah pipes…

I happened across a postcard from Jerusalem, written over a decade ago with typical Irish flair by an unorthodox Irishman who has felt at times very strongly that he should have been a Jew “in the tortured, intellectual ghetto sense.”

I wonder if he knows that he might be a missing piece in the great puzzle of the Diaspora.

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The Book of Kells, at Trinity College in Dublin, is a mysteriously and gorgeously decorated Latin copy of the Gospels (biblical biographies of the life of Jesus Christ). This ancient document is Ireland’s national treasure. But long gone are the days when Patrick preached good news on the island. The King of the Jews is little more than a swearword now.

1 thought on “Madam Secretary Reflects on International Relations and Happy Happenstance”

  1. Incredibly woven tapestry of sentences that spark the cerebral with vivid still frames in the mind creating a cottonmouth sensation; and my eyes kept drinking until the last drop only to be unsatisfied that it had an end.

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