Madam Secretary Reflects on International Relations

Well, my friends, it’s March, and I’m sure we all agree that Old Man Winter has way, way overstayed his welcome.

I’ve stumbled into bookkeeping, ironically, and my new occupation doesn’t involve traveling to anywhere except the post office and the department of licensing.

(It’s like doing laundry: you sort through the junk mail, code and file and distribute amounts between cost centers, answer the phone, try not to dock anyone’s wages or shred anything important, empty the waste baskets and get everything tidied away for a little while, and then you start over again.)

I feel a bit like Bartleby The Scrivener sometimes. I always said that administration and accounting were not my thing. So the joke is on me, as usual.

Anyway, I’m in a nostalgic mood, so I’m going to ramble about other countries and things that are within the realm of my experience but maybe outside the realm of my expertise.

Disclaimer: I’m not a politician, 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. (They are not.)

As an attaché to locals, my experience of both of these places has been a tad more intimate than that of the average tourist. To be clear, people are more important than places, but when I hear the sound of a bagpipe or a shofar, I hear some of my fondest and most colorful memories.

I had the extreme privilege of spending Christmas 2014 in Ireland with my older 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. John Denver was singing “For You,” and that song has had a special place in my heart ever since.

Jet lag and short, drizzly days conspired to make me feel slightly drugged. I was told that the sitting room window, facing Main Street, was better than television, 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 ventured beyond the county limits. “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.)

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 cool, damp air with a musty smell. Feet got clammy at night. Kitchen windows fogged up at teatime.

Speaking of teatime—the teakettle was always 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. “The American sister-in-law” felt like a bit of a celebrity in Kilnaleck. 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 came out of my shell in Ireland.

I poked around the mossy ruins of castles and abbeys. I bought 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 my velvet and pearls for a wedding at an elegant hotel. 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, it seemed). After Christmas, we went on a little road trip around the ruggedly picturesque Ring of Kerry and rented a thatched cottage in Killarney. There I spent a drizzly New Year’s Eve blazing through a borrowed copy of The Gates of Damascus by Lieve Joris.

We had tea with my sister’s husband’s friend’s mother one day. I told her that Israel was next on my agenda, and she told me, to my surprise, that her mother had lived in Jerusalem during the British Mandate.

On a menu at the Black Rose Pub, during our layover in Boston.

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 the 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, Hebrew and sarcasm 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 (which was like mud flecked with cardamom) and then my older sister called from the states to announce that she was expecting her second child.

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 is a city of ruins built upon ruins, filled with territorial enclaves and little wars within wars–a stewing microcosm of world history. Her stones have been polished by the feet of a billion festival-goers, muted and disquieted by centuries of babble. A parking lot has become a bone of contention between Anglicans and Armenians. Even the revered Church of the Holy Sepulcher is a battle zone, scrupulously divided among half a dozen competing religious groups. 

Jerusalem was exotic and intense. And yet it was familiar. My mother and younger sister and I were not used to city life, and we felt like a babies, learning everything over and getting lost in the claustrophobic stone streets of the Old City. But I was surprised by my own calmness and the whole visit was less emotionally overwhelming than I expected it to be. 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 Iranian missiles were aimed in our direction.

Major Amir Tsarfati has said that God designed Israel to stand alone, so the whole world will know that it’s Him when He saves them. And I believe it.

Actually, people who identify as ethnic Jews today only represent a fraction of the original twelve tribes of Israel who were led out of slavery in Egypt and back to the Promised Land by Moses, as recorded in the Book of Exodus. Israel was later 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, since a Muslim mosque now stands where the Jewish temple used to be, and without a temple Jewish people cannot practice their religion as prescribed in the Torah (Old Testament). Jews come in many different stripes, and not everything “Jewish” is necessarily biblical.

The secular Jew is tough 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. He pushes his black hat back in warm weather, unbuttons the collar of his white shirt, and leans against the street lamps, twirling his side-curls around his fingers. He prays hard and parties hard. The bottle dance is a real thing (for all you fans of Fiddler On The Roof–life is all about balance, right?)

Sabbath was a refreshing, 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 the faithful took a break, and the break was good for the unfaithful as well. I appreciated it more than the history, the falafel, the street music, or anything else about Jerusalem.

Despite the ten-hour time difference, I had never felt more alive as we left the city and cruised south across the Negev desert toward the Dead Sea, in a rental car, with me or my intrepid mother behind the wheel, following our friends past date palm plantations and gas stations where Bedouins watered their camels. Israelis drive like devils and, yes, we got honked at a lot. The southern elevation is well below sea level, so perhaps my energy could be attributed to adrenalin and a high density of oxygen.

Heading north, wild hollyhocks nodded their shining heads on the sunny hillsides of Samaria. UN jeeps prowled around the Golan Heights, while Israeli tank crews camped among flowering orchards. 

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

There were a dozen people to a bathroom at our house. A reclusive old Jewish man, a decipherer of ancient languages, lived in the basement and occasionally came up for air.

The bedroom next to ours was rented by another old scholar named Aryeh. He was like a child in his sincerity and spoke English with a perfect British accent. He had wanted to marry a blind woman who was a medical guinea pig in Auschwitz, but her family disapproved of him because he believed that Jesus is the Messiah. He, along with some other scholars, also 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 daily.

Aryeh also supplied us with a box of dry, thin matzah wafers every day. We got fresh pita at the shuk instead, and ate it on the sly so as not to hurt his feelings.

Scheherazade shared a single bedroom with the rest of us women. She and Aryeh had a vendetta that went back to their school days. She never missed an opportunity to make fun of him. After he loaned me a book, she would tap on the wall at night after the lights were out and whisper to everyone [insert Lebanese accent], “Listen–it’s Emily and Aryeh. Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. ‘Are you awake? I was dreaming about you.’” And we would all burst into stifled laughter.

I remember eavesdropping through the bathroom window one evening when Aryeh and a mysterious friend of his were drinking tea under the lemon trees in the courtyard, talking military strategy and political science in plastic chairs and moth-eaten sweaters. Temple Mount was lit up in the background. The air was laced with wisteria and barbecue and sweet smoke from hookah pipes that young Arab men were puffing in the street…

I came across a postcard from Jerusalem, written over a decade ago with typical Irish flair by an unorthodox Irishman who says he 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.

The Book of Kells, at Trinity College in Dublin, 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 of salvation on the island. The King of the Jews is little more than a swearword now.