The ProsenPeople

From Journalism to Publishing

Thursday, July 27, 2017 | Permalink

Bruce Henderson, the author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging this week as part of our Visiting Scribe series.

Q: Was there a particular moment when you knew you were a writer?

I started out as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s, and at some point down the road, amid all the interviews and deadlines and stories filed, I realized that I was becoming a writer. It didn't happen overnight, and I've told my writing students over the years (at Stanford and the USC School of Journalism) that writing is like exercising. The more you do it, the stronger you get. For me, newspaper articles led to magazine pieces which led to books; each step was a natural progression. My first book was published when I was still in my 20s, and it was an expansion of a newspaper article I had written. I didn't become a full-time book author until about 10 years later.

Q: Career high point and career low point?

The high point was when my third book, And the Sea Will Tell, became #1 on The New York Times hardcover bestseller list. I kept calling, over and over, the Times recorded message number to hear the weekly bestseller list: “And #1 is…” What a thrill!

Low point: When after delivering a book, I go more than a few months without a new deal. It always feels as if I’ll never work again. That doesn’t happen very often, as I usually am able to go from one book to the next, but when it does I get very antsy. I don’t play golf or work with wood or paint still lifes or tend a garden. Writing is my hobby, as well as my career.

Q: Most unforgettable characters you’ve encountered through your past writing?

Mercury 7 astronaut “Gordo” Cooper is one. After first reading about him in The Right Stuff, I was able some years later to work with him on his autobiography, Leap of Faith.

Also on the list is Dieter Dengler, the subject of my book, Hero Found. Dieter was a U.S. Navy pilot who was shot down during the Vietnam War, and led an organized escape from a POW camp in Laos. Against seemingly overwhelming odds, he made it out alive. We served on the same aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger, and were good friends for many years. He was bigger-than-life, unforgettable, and one of my heroes.

Q: Was there a book that changed your life or career?

There were two: In Cold Blood and The Right Stuff. Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe opened up to me the world of long-form narrative nonfiction, which they almost single-handedly made commercial. They not only provided a bridge from journalism to books for writers like myself, but they created an entire genre—one in which I have made my living for twenty-plus years.

Q: You have sold several books for film adaptation. Some writers go their whole careers without having a book turned into a movie. What’s your formula for film sales?

And the Sea Will Tell was a four-hour CBS miniseries, and went to the heart of what television executives were looking for at that time: true murder mysteries set in paradise. A couple of other books of mine are currently under option, and are in various stages of development as either a feature film or for television. Movie folks are always looking for good stories, and they particularly like true ones. This brings us back to narrative nonfiction, in which we utilize the tools of a novelist, descriptive scenes, dialog and so forth, and only every word is true. More than one filmmaker has told me that a book of mine is easy to visualize as a movie. Also, authors need to have specialized film agents—and good ones—to represent their work to Hollywood, just as writers need literary agents to submit their works to book publishers.

Q: What have you read recently that you couldn’t put down?

The Lost City of Z by David Grann. For fun, I always jump on the latest Bosch title by Michael Connelly.

Q: What does it mean to you to be a writer?

That I have a platform to tell real stories about real people. A writer is a storyteller. Facts teach people, and “truisms” are often arguable opinions. Tell a good story, however, and it will live in hearts forever.

Q: What’s new and upcoming?

My new book, Sons and Soldiers: The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler, was published on July 25. It will also be published in six foreign countries. It’s my third consecutive World War II book. For all of them, I went around the country interviewing members of the Greatest Generation, which turned into a labor of love. They are now nonagenarians, and we are losing them rapidly. They are an extraordinary generation who fought a good-against-evil war. Had they not been victorious, the world would look much different today. I am now writing a proposal for another WWII book set in Europe, a story I came across while researching Buchenwald concentration camps for Sons and Soldiers. 

Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

Book Cover of the Week: Petty Business

Wednesday, July 26, 2017 | Permalink

Posted by Gabby Teaman

After a hot week like this one, you'll wanna dive right into the pool on the cover of this week's pick, Petty Business.

Petty Business, by Yirmi Pinkus and translated by Evan Fallenberg and Yardenne Greenspan, is a tragic-comic novel about a large, dysfunctional, well-to-do family in early nineties Tel Aviv. While the cover is enticing us to dive in right away, you'll have to wait to November to dig in further (November 15th to be exact). We'll be ready for another dose of summer-themed covers by then, surely. 

Excerpt: There Was a Rabbi of Kiev

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | Permalink

British writer Howard Jacobson's most recent collection of essays, The Dog's Last Walk (and Other Pieces), was published last week by Bloomsbury Publishing. Below's excerpt from the book, "There Was a Rabbi in Kiev," offers a Yom Kippur tale. 

Now that another Yom Kippur has been and gone without my being struck down for my sins – the biggest of them, in some eyes, being my failure to honour the Day of Atonement in the way a Jew is supposed to – I will unfold to you a tale. Call it an expiation for not adequately expiating.

There was a rabbi . . . Jewish parables always begin that way, and as often as not situate the rabbi in Kiev. So: there was a rabbi of Kiev, only he was not a rabbi in the conventional sense, he was rabbi of Radical Scepticism employed by the City Duma’s Department of Rationalism to keep an eye out for irrationalism of a specifically Jewish variety. Though known to his friends as Viktor, he always jumped when someone shouted: ‘Abram!’ This was because Abram was the name his parents had given him. Whenever this happened, Viktor – who had bestowed that name upon himself – fell into a fit of guilt about his parents and prayed for forgiveness from the God in whom they had believed but he did not. Immediately he had finished praying he castigated himself for showing such disrespect to his own non-belief. Viktor did not keep Shabbes, took no notice of any of Jewish festivals and ate whatever took his fancy. Because lapwing was high on the list of foods proscribed in Leviticus, he would have tucked into lapwing with gusto had he known where to buy it. Food was scarce in Kiev, so it was difficult enough to find ossifrage, let alone lapwing. Snails, however, were a delicacy he indulged. Hare, whether grilled or in a pie, likewise. And as for the bacon he fried in butter every morning, as an accompaniment to blood pudding – so many slices, fried for just the right number of minutes, a little salt, a little pepper, a dash of oyster sauce – why it was almost a religious ritual to him.

But he was troubled by an inconsistency. If he could dine on bacon without a qualm, and pork sausage, and ham hock, and chitterlings – and there was even one dish he adored of which the chief ingredient was pig’s rectum – why couldn’t he ever eat pork belly? If he saw pork belly on a menu, he needed to drink a glass of water. If he sat next to someone eating pork belly, he had to fight himself from retching. Once, when one of his colleagues ordered pork belly, Viktor announced he would have to leave the table while the food was being consumed.

‘Viktor, you must be able to explain this inconsistency,’ his colleague demanded. But Viktor was unable to. It wasn’t what the pork belly looked or tasted like that was the problem. It was the pairing of the words, the concatenation of sounds – pork and belly. Pork on its own – fine. He loved a pork sandwich with apple sauce. Belly, too, as a discrete entity, presented no problems. He had once eaten yak’s belly on a visit to Moldavia and loved it. But put pork and belly together and he was disgusted. It was a foreignness – a transgression even – too far.

So what was it a transgression against? Viktor was damned if he knew.

And thus it was, inversely, with Yom Kippur, that’s to say thus it was when it came to ignoring it. Hanukkah, Pesach, Purim – Viktor respected none of them. He saw his co-religionists – except that he was no longer a religionist himself – spruced up for synagogue and shook his head over them. Slaves to custom and superstition! Drones of blind faith! On festivals where it was necessary to be solemn, Viktor took pains to be seen laughing. Where it was necessary to laugh, Viktor wore his longest face. On Yom Kippur, however, he kept out of the way. He saw no reason to apologise for his sins since he was always apologising for his sins. Why set aside a single day to atone for your guilt when you’ve been atoning for it all year? Indeed, if he had a besetting sin it was being over-conscious of sinning. So he certainly wasn’t going to fast. But – and this he knew to be illogical – he wasn’t going to be seen not fasting either. No ostentatious banquets at his favourite restaurants on this day. No public retching over another diner’s pork belly.

On the Day of Atonement the sun happened to be shining and Viktor decided on a walk. He nodded at some of the Jews he knew – more pallid than ever on account of doing without food – and suddenly, despite having enjoyed a hearty breakfast, he felt hungry. A snack was all he needed. A biscuit or chocolate. He wandered down a side street and found a tobacconist and confectioner’s. Here he bought a bar of chocolate. But he hesitated before breaking into it. On this day of all others, he thought, couldn’t I at least have done without chocolate?

But that was a superstitious thought and he put it from him. He ate a piece of chocolate, was disappointed in the taste and decided to throw the rest away. What made him decide to throw it in the Dnieper when he could have tossed it over any fence he didn’t know. But when he got to the river, he realised he couldn’t do it. It looked too much like tashlich, or casting your sins upon the water, a ritual Viktor scorned. As though you could drown a sin! He walked on but knew he had to get rid of the remaining chocolate. Why? Did he think he could half atone for half a sin? Did he think he might be half forgiven?

It would seem, he admitted to himself, that I am half superstitious.

Once he got back to his department offices he confessed his recidivism and offered to half resign. At a hurriedly convened meeting of councillors he was fired altogether. You have to make your mind up in this institution, they told him.

There is no moral to this story. But as someone who recently bought a bar of chocolate on Yom Kippur I can vouch for its essential truth.

From The Dog’s Last Walk, by Howard Jacobson, published by Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright ©Howard Jacobson 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Obituaries as Literary Inspiration

Tuesday, July 25, 2017 | Permalink

Bruce Henderson, author of Sons and Soldiers, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series. Check back throughout the week to read more from him.

How we get ideas for a book is the one question most asked of authors. Given that I am a nonfiction writer, my subjects generally don't come from a daydream or bolt out of the blue. Often, I find the nuggets I'm looking for in a documentary or an article or book. I'll tell you this secret: a number of my ideas for books have come from obituaries, my favorite section of the newspaper because they introduce me to interesting people I never had the chance to meet. (The New York Times obits are the best.)

In early 2014, I was in the midst of writing a book about World War II in the Pacific when I read an obituary in my local paper about a German-born nonagenarian who had escaped the Nazis as a young boy in the 1930s with the help of a Jewish Relief Organization, was drafted into the U.S. Army during the war, and trained to be an interrogator of German POWs at a top-secret Military Intelligence center at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Only a decade removed from his boyhood escape, he returned to Nazi-occupied Europe as a member of a special band of U.S. soldiers-most of them German Jews-known as The Ritchie Boys. My first thought was that his life story had an astonishing dramatic arc from nearly victim to liberator. As a voracious reader of military histories and the author of several books about World War II, I couldn't believe that I had never heard of the Ritchie Boys. Who were they? How many were they? What had it been like for them to go back and fight the Nazi evil from which they had only a few years earlier escaped? I ripped the article from the paper, looked at my wife, and said, "I think I've found my next book."

Six months later, I was ready to start answering those questions. First, I searched online for book titles on the subject, and found none. I did find and watch the documentary, "The Ritchie Boys," which was very moving. I was soon on the trail of retired Wayne State University professor Guy Stern, himself a former Ritchie Boy, who had curated a 2011 special exhibit called, "Secret Heroes: The Ritchie Boys," at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. I telephoned Guy, and learned that the traveling exhibit had been up for a year but was now in storage. He told me that it was all digitized, however, and I could have access to it if I came to Michigan. I quickly packed my bag. I spent a week in Farmington Hills, going over oral histories, letters, official documents and wartime photos, and interviewing Guy, a warm, intelligent man blessed with a photographic memory. I returned home convinced that the story of the Ritchie Boys was one of the last great sagas of World War II that had not yet been the subject of a major book. An estimated 300 Ritchie Boys-all in their nineties-were alive when I began my research, and I went around the country interviewing dozens of them. When I was ready to start writing, I selected six German-born Ritchie Boys to follow in "Sons and Soldiers," beginning with their harrowing escapes from the Nazis, reaching their new homes in America, and their experiences in the war when they went back to their homeland in the fight against fascism. 

Although there were many more who could have been included, I didn't want the book to read like the Manhattan white pages; I decided on a infinite number of characters who were doing different things at different times and gave us complete coverage of a big theater of war. Also, I wanted the readers to remember the characters whenever we came back to them, and feel a bond with them. That would have been more difficult with a larger cast. The Ritchie Boys returned to the United States after the war, and many went on to stellar careers in a variety of fields, including science, politics, business, the law, the arts, and academia. Even more than half a century later, their surviving members vividly recalled fighting two different wars: the world's and their own. I am honored to tell the epic story of these little-known heroes.

Bruce Henderson is the author or coauthor of more than twenty nonfiction books, including the #1 New York Times bestseller And the Sea Will Tell, the national bestseller Hero Found: The Greatest POW Escape of the Vietnam War, and Rescue at Los Banos: The Most Daring Prison Camp Raid of World War II, as well as Sons and Soldiers. An award-winning journalist and writer, he has published work in Esquire, Playboy, Reader's Digest, and other periodicals. Henderson has taught writing and reporting at USC School of Journalism and Stanford University. He lives in Menlo Park, California.

New Reviews July 21 2017

Friday, July 21, 2017 | Permalink

How Journalism Has Changed

Thursday, July 20, 2017 | Permalink

Lynda Schuster, author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council this week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

As I was writing my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, I thought a lot about how journalism has changed over the decades. The book—which begins with the 1973 Yom Kippur War and ends with the 2014 Gaza War—chronicles my time as a foreign correspondent covering international conflicts for the Wall Street Journal and as the wife of a U.S. ambassador. Journalism’s transformation during those years, both in its dissemination and in the role of its practitioners, is nothing short of remarkable.

Much of the change is due, obviously, to the advent of the Internet and the rise of social media. When I started out at the Journal in the early 1980s, we were still using typewriters to bang out our copy. (That thumping noise you hear is my dinosaur tail being tucked discretely behind me.) Back then, when I wanted to file a story to the States while covering the wars in Central America, say, I had to be beg, plead, cajole—bribe, even—the telex operator at my hotel. And that assumed the power grid hadn’t been attacked. Barring a sympathetic hotel typist, I had to strike out, often in the dead of night to make my deadline, to the city’s central telephone exchange. Still, there was something thrilling about the clacking, clattering noise of the machine sending your story.

The years passed, and the technology improved. My first portable computer could accommodate about three sentences on the screen; to send a story, I had to fit rubber cups over the ear- and mouthpiece of a telephone. (That telephones even had mouthpieces tells you right there this is ancient history.) Those computers were prone to epic failures. Once, after writing up a story in Buenos Aires that I had spent several days reporting, I flew to Rio de Janeiro with the intention of filing the piece from there. (I was on a crazy deadline to finish a Brazilian story as well.) As soon I got to my stringer’s office, I attached the cups, dialed New York, pressed “send”—and pouf! The story disappeared. Gone. Vanished forever. The computer had neither hard drive nor memory—and I had nothing to file. So I did what any self-respecting reporter on deadline would do: I panicked. Once I’d finished hyperventilating, though, I sat down and miraculously recreated the story from memory. After I made deadline, my editor—who apparently liked the article I’d pieced together—said: “Maybe you ought to try losing your stories more often.”

Fast forward to today, with all the fancy, light-as-air laptops and instantaneous means of transmission. But while the Internet has made the actual job of journalism easier, social media is, in many ways, rendering reporters superfluous. That’s especially true when it comes to foreign reportage.

First, consider the vital role as conduits that we journalists used to play. When I covered southern Africa in the late 1980s, the civil war in Angola—a proxy conflict for Cold War supremacy in the region—had been raging for almost fifteen years. Amid talk of a possible peace accord, another reporter and I were flown by the South African military to Angola to interview the head of the rebels. We arrived at their base—only to find the rebel leader had flown off an hour earlier to consult with the president of a West African country. His armed soldiers made it clear, however, that we were to remain as their “guests” until the leader returned. And there we were, stuck in a place so remote the former Portuguese colonists called it “the land at the end of the earth.” No means of communication, no way of getting out (the South Africans left after dropping us off), nothing to do but sit in a hut and wait. For days. Until the leader returned: laughing off our consternation at being held hostage, he gave us a lengthy interview, then summoned a plane to return us to South Africa.

The rebel chief had wanted his opinion of the pending peace accord transmitted to the world—and we were the only means to do so. Nowadays, that wouldn’t happen. The rebels most likely would possess their own website, Facebook and Twitter accounts, all manner of methods to disseminate their message without having to rely on journalists. Which accounts, in some ways, for tragedies such as the beheading by ISIS of reporter James Foley in 2014: we are more valuable as pawns to garner international attention than as interlocutors.

Yet one essential thing about the profession hasn’t changed. Witness the remarkable reporting of late by the New York Times and Washington Post, among others, on matters that otherwise would have remained unknown to us citizens. No amount of technological transformation can ever replace that cornerstone of our democracy.

Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor. She reported from Central and South America Mexico the Middle East and Africa. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Atlantic, Granta, and Utne Reader. She is the author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver and A Burning Hunger: One Family's Struggle Against Apartheid.

Memory's Imperfections

Wednesday, July 19, 2017 | Permalink

Lynda Schuster, author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, has been guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

One of the epigraphs at the beginning of my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, is taken from Joachim Fest’s haunting book, Not I. Fest’s coming-of-age memoir is set against the backdrop of the Third Reich in Germany and his father’s implacable opposition to the Nazis. When I came across this passage while writing my own memoir, it seemed an excellent encapsulation of the genre:

One does not, in retrospect, record what one has

experienced, but what time—with its increasing shifts

in perspective, with one’s own will to shape the chaos

of half-buried experiences—has made of it. By and large,

one records less how it actually was than how one

became who one is.

It also perfectly described the problem I had as a former journalist writing a memoir. Besides a near-Pavlovian aversion to first person pronouns—instilled in most print reporters on their first day of journalism school—I had to grapple with the even more bizarre concept of reporting out a story about myself. To say nothing of checking and rechecking those facts. (Although a writer friend, by way of explaining the craft, said: “You know, they don’t call it creative nonfiction for nothing.”)

My memoir chronicles my time as a foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal and as the wife of an American ambassador. That meant trying to verify more than twenty years of events. The book begins in Israel: rejecting my mother’s staid, Midwestern life and in search of adventure, I fled my home at age seventeen for a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee. (Because nice Jewish girls don’t run away to join the circus, they join a kibbutz.) The Yom Kippur War broke out almost immediately upon my arrival—a seminal event that set me on the path that would define my personal and professional life for decades.

As part of the first chapter, I wrote a scene about a Saturday dinner at the house of my kibbutz mother, Simcha, just after the war ended. Most people didn’t eat in the dining hall on Saturday nights; Sim, a gifted cook, always managed to make something different from the usual kibbutz fare in her microscopic kitchen. On that evening, as usual, she put me to work slicing peppers while she made a hash from bits of leftover chicken. Her daughters, Anat and Orly, bickered over who would set the table. They were still going at it when we finally sat down to eat: Anat complaining that Orly had been bothering her all day; Orly claiming the same of Anat. Simcha reminded them the country’s war had ended and it would be nice to have peace in the house as well, then left the table to answer a knock at the front door.

Anat peered around the archway to ensure her mother was out of sight. Carefully balancing a slice of tomato on her fork, she suddenly launched it at Orly as if on a catapult. Not to be outdone, Orly picked up a tomato piece and hurled it from the end of her fork to her sister’s side of the table. And then it was off to the races: tomato slices flying fast and furiously; both girls laughing uproariously; Orly shrieking, “Milchemet Haagvaniot” (The War of the Tomatoes!); me thinking that I never wanted to leave the place.

I did leave, though. Sim had seen dozens of similarly starry-eyed youngsters wash up on her shores, eager to jettison their former lives. She wasn’t having any of my idylls. Go study, she said. Which is how I became a journalist, covering foreign conflicts.

After writing the dinner scene, I sent it to Sim for verification. She informally adopted me many years ago and has remained a significant figure in my life. Sim forwarded it to her daughters. They didn’t remember the incident. Nothing. Nada. Zip.

How could this be? How could something so redolent to me of the time and place, something so formative to my young life, not be imprinted on their brains as well? Even now, I can remember the chill autumnal wind that blew through the slightly opened window; the tiny lights dancing across the recaptured Golan Heights; the soft splosh of tomatoes missiles hitting the dining room table; the girlish squeals of my kibbutz sisters. Maybe I had imagined the scene in all its sensory detail. Or—more likely—what was a quotidian, forgettable event for them became, for me, emblematic of the romance of starting out on one’s journey.

In the end, it didn’t matter. The scene wound up on the cutting room floor; ultimately, it didn’t fit with the chapter’s narrative flow. Nonetheless, it’s still exists, part of who I became and memorialized forever in my mind—if not in my book.

Check back on Thursday to read more from Lynda Schuster. 

New Memorial Edition of Elie Wiesel's Night

Tuesday, July 18, 2017 | Permalink

A memorial edition of Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, with tributes by President Obama and Samantha Power will be published on September 12, 2017.

According to Night's publisher Hill & Wang, "when Elie Wiesel died in July, 2016, the White House issued a memorial statement in which President Barack Obama called him 'the conscience of the world.' The whole of the president’s eloquent tribute will appear as a foreword to this memorial edition of Night. 'Like millions of admirers, I first came to know Elie through his account of the horror he endured during the Holocaust simply because he was Jewish,' wrote the president." This memorial edition of Night will include a tribute statement by Barack Obama in which he memorials the many achievements of Wiesel. 

This edition also includes "the unpublished text of a speech that Wiesel delivered before the United Nations General Assembly on the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz entitled 'Will the World Ever Know.' These remarks powerfully resonate with Night and with subsequent acts of genocide." Find more books by Elie Wiesel on the JBC website here.

How I Learned (Or Didn't) To Be A Diplomatic Wife

Monday, July 17, 2017 | Permalink

Lynda Schuster, author of Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council as part of the Visiting Scribe series.

In my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, I chronicle my time as a foreign correspondent covering international conflicts for the Wall Street Journal and as the wife of a U.S. ambassador. As I explain in the book, the latter was a huge transition for me after I married my husband and gave up daily journalism. One minute I was Lois Lane with a steely gaze and deep skepticism of those who exercised power, a hard-bitten girl reporter with an overnight bag at the ready by her bedside—and the next, June Cleaver cross-pollinated with Princess Grace. A Jewish Princess Grace, no less. How was I to finesse that?

One coping strategy, for the Jewish part at least, came in Ambassatrix School. That’s what I called the two-week charm course the State Department requires its envoys and their spouses to attend. Here the idea that I’d fallen into a time warp of pillbox hats and little white gloves was only reinforced. While our husbands—the ambassadorial appointees were exclusively men—received juicy, classified briefings on their respective countries, we wives were treated to lectures on such scintillating subjects as, “Your China Patterns and You!” But then, a moment of enlightenment: a panel discussion by three veteran ambassadors’ wives—one of whom was Jewish.

As soon as the question-and-answer period finished, I made a beeline for the woman. “What do you do about Christmas?” I whispered.

She looked at me blankly.

“You know, the decorated tree in the ambassador’s residence and the caroling and Santa Claus.”

“Oh, that,” she said. “Thanksgiving.”


“Invite the embassy’s American staff and their families to Thanksgiving at your residence. Then at Christmas, you can say that everyone’s already been to your house, and offload the tree and party on your husband’s deputy.”

Brilliant! She was obviously a pro at this stuff. And most likely hadn’t flunked Basic Entertaining—as I was on the verge of doing.

Her suggestion worked well at my husband’s first ambassadorial posting in Maputo, Mozambique, which had only a small embassy. The Southern African nation, one of the world’s poorest and least developed, was just emerging from a brutal fifteen-year civil war. You could barely find yogurt in the shops, let alone turkeys or canned pumpkin. For those exotic foodstuffs, I had to beg the large U.S. embassy in neighboring South Africa to supply us from its commissary. And our poor cook spent days baking the fourteen pumpkin pies and dozen turkeys required to feed the forty American staffers and their families. Nonetheless, there it was: Thanksgiving in the subtropics! And the next month: Christmas at the deputy’s house!

Deflecting non-Jewish holidays was harder at my husband’s next posting in Lima, Peru. More than five hundred Americans worked at the embassy; with their families added in, we would have had to turn our residence into something akin to a Catskills resort to accommodate them all. In the end, we decided to invite single staffers without families to Thanksgiving—and still outsourced Christmas. There was some grumbling in the embassy community. But I was already so derelict in my general ambassatrix duties, I figured this discontent could just be added to the litany of the other shortcomings.

Overall, figuring out the Jewish piece of my existence abroad proved easier than the Princess Grace part. Especially in Lima, which had three synagogues. (Unlike Maputo, whose sole Jewish house of worship—a lovely, white-washed building from the turn of the 19th century—had just been rescued from use as a Red Cross warehouse when we were there.) We attended services at a conservative shul; after I gave birth to our daughter in Lima, we had a simchat bat, a baby-naming ceremony there.

This was a simchat bat unlike any I’d ever witnessed, though. We invited our friends to the ceremony, many of them Peruvian dignitaries and fellow diplomats. The Israeli ambassador came, as did the Egyptian envoy. This apparently was the first time an Arab diplomat had ever set foot in a Lima synagogue—something so alarming to the Peruvian president that he sent tanks to cordon off a six-block area around the shul. Tanks! For a baby! Our six-week-old daughter took it all in stride, however. She slept through much of the proceedings, waking only to receive her name of Noa Shlomit, then going back to sleep—thus proving herself much more adept at diplomatic life than her mother.

Check back on Wednesday to read more from Lynda Schuster.

Quiz: Which Summer Book Should You Read Next?

Friday, July 14, 2017 | Permalink

Take this quiz to find out which JBC summer book to read next!