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30 Days, 30 Authors: Lynda Schuster

Monday, December 11, 2017 | Permalink
Celebrate Jewish Book Month with #30days30authors! JBC invited an author to share thoughts on #JewLit for each day of Jewish Book Month. Watch, read, enjoy, and discover! 

Today, Lynda Schuster, the author of  Dirty Wars and Polished Silver: The Life and Times of a War Correspondent Turned Ambassatrix, writes a tribute to a hero of hers, Nora Ephron. 

While writing my memoir, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver, I happened on a quote in Not I, Joachim Fest’s magisterial account of his family’s resistance to the Nazis while Fest was growing up in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s:

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.

I thought it a perfect epigraph to any memoir and happily attached it to mine. But the words looked so solemn, sitting there on the page in all their eloquent wisdom. And my book, while covering such weighty matters as death and love lost, is anything but grave. The obvious solution to injecting a bit of levity as counterbalance? Why, juxtapose the excerpt with the late, great Nora Ephron’s iconic quote, “Everything is copy.” Of course.

Ephron, the journalist, blogger, screenplay writer and director who died in 2012, was and is my hero. In her writing, she combined a feminist’s sensibility with the ability to turn pain into laughter—the latter the very essence of Jewish humor. To quote the protagonist in her novel, Heartburn, the thinly disguised tale of the collapse of her marriage to Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein after he took up with another woman while Ephron was pregnant, “Because if I tell the story, I can make you laugh, and I would rather have you laugh at me than feel sorry for me. Because if I tell the story, it doesn’t hurt as much. Because if I tell the story, I can get on with it.”

Heartburn, for my money, is a classic: smart, hysterically funny, bittersweet, with set pieces and gag lines to rival those of the Marx Brothers. In the world of comedic writing, Ephron was to women what Woody Allen is to men, only better. After all, who could forget Meg Ryan’s feigned orgasm scene in a deli in “When Harry Met Sally”—or the response of the woman sitting at the next table, who tells the waiter, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

But Ephron’s genius was more than just witty one-liners. (“If pregnancy were a book, they would cut the last two chapters;” “In my sex fantasy, nobody ever loves me for my mind.”) Rather, she had the unique ability to translate personal experiences into writing that resonated deeply with readers and moviegoers. Despite a proclivity for perhaps too-tidy endings, she nailed male-female relationships in her films. And, while we’re at it, the ignominy of aging--particularly for women--in her later essay collections, I Feel Bad About My Neck and I Remember Nothing. As Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist, said of Ephron, “It takes a particular combination of winning voice and brutal candor, of intimacy and objectivity, to turn what happens to you into a story that means something to the wider world.”

I just wish she were still around to give us her take on the spate of sexual misconduct and assault allegations that have recently come to light against male luminaries in journalism, Hollywood, politics and the like. No doubt it would be wry and insightful and ironic and, of course, funny. To say nothing of beautifully crafted. Because Ephron always managed to make the stringing together of words look easy. This, despite her sage analysis of the author’s craft, a fitting way to end a post celebrating Jewish Book Month: “The hardest thing about writing is writing.”

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. 

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.