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.

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 also the author of A Burn­ing Hunger: One Fam­i­ly’s Strug­gle Against Apartheid.