Long journey

Margaret Lawn arrived in Israel as a Roman Catholic from Northern Ireland on a year-long nursing program. Thirty-seven years later, she’s a newly retired Jewish Jerusalemite.

Margaret Long 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Margaret Long 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Margaret Lawn insists that she left Ireland to escape the political infighting, watching politicians argue on TV without doing anything to solve religious conflict. What’s interesting is where she ended up, of all the places in the world: Jerusalem. “The politics, I just didn’t see a future. Here, it’s different,” she says.
Lawn arrived in Jerusalem in August 1973 to do a year-long job at Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem. Before she left Ireland, the newspapers were filled with reports of the increasingly volatile situation in the Middle East. But the eldest daughter of five of a devout Roman Catholic family from Northern Ireland was no stranger to conflict situations. “It’ll be just another experience,” she told worried friends when she started the program.
In February 2010, Lawn finally left Hadassah. Her one-year residency stretched into 37 years in various departments: gynecology, the general operating room and orthopedics. She retired as the head nurse of the orthopedic operating room. “You get involved. You become a member of society, you work in a prestigious hospital with high standards that you fight for all the time and then, suddenly, 37 years have gone by. Where did they go?!” Lawn asks herself as she contemplates her retirement.
More than 100 people attended her retirement party, presenting her with a commemoration plaque made of pins used in hip replacement surgery. In a video celebrating her almost four decades at the hospital, doctors and staff praised her dedication to the hospital and the way she insisted on upholding the highest standards at the hospital, whether they liked it or not.
Lawn was born in Armagh in 1944. “There used to be shootings and such because we lived near the border [between the republic and Northern Ireland],” she remembers. The “safe room” in their house was the coal house around the back, away from the street where the shootings took place. “They split our coal house in two and put blankets and mattresses in there... We loved it because there was an electric light and we could read,” she says. “We got used to it because you get used to things. We even got used to bombs in Jerusalem!”
Lawn left Ireland before the bombings got really bad, though her brother-in-law was badly wounded in the mid-1980s by a bombing at a construction site.
At 17, Lawn decided that nursing represented a way to get out of Ireland and see the world. After studying for two years in Ireland and passing the examination for the World College of Nursing, Lawn left Ireland in 1967 and never looked back. She did additional training in England and worked in one of the first day clinics in London, rising to the position of head nurse.
“My boss was Jewish, my boyfriend was Jewish, everything was Jewish, it was so funny. But then I decided I had had enough, and I wanted to get out of England,” Lawn says.
She had two choices: South Africa and Israel. She decided to try Israel for a year and then go on to South Africa. Lawn arrived in Jerusalem in August 1973 and rented a room with a religious family on Rehov Ben-Sira downtown.
“I was like a fish out of water,” Lawn remembers of her first few weeks. “It wasn’t like today where everyone speaks and understands English.”
Trying to get used to the country was difficult. “It’s not that they’re weren’t nice to me, it’s just that they weren’t interested in me because nobody wants to invest time in someone that you think is going to leave in a year’s time.”
But barely two months into her time in Israel, the Yom Kippur War broke out. Lawn remembers not understanding why there were trucks in the streets on Yom Kippur afternoon.
“I went to work the next day, and we did nothing because we didn’t know what Jordan was going to do,” Lawn says. “We didn’t get casualties. So we drank coffee and watched the news to see what was going on. And for me, I didn’t even know where the Golan Heights were. I hadn’t even had a chance to travel anywhere.
“After three days we got casualties and we worked straight through. Wars are very difficult. The war ended, as thank God they do. We’ve had several since... When I was working in the war, I was like a stranger to everybody. I didn’t have family in the war. I didn’t have the same stress levels as everybody had. I wasn’t keyed up that maybe I’d see my brother or my sister coming into the hospital. They used to sometimes give me the difficult cases because of the fact that I didn’t have family involved in the war,” Lawn says.
Despite being new in Israel, the tragedy of war struck Lawn as well: A pilot with whom she’d celebrated Rosh Hashana in Eilat with a group of friends just a few days before was killed.
“I think I knew by the end of the war that I wanted to stay,” Lawn says. “I didn’t think it’d be short term; it was a long-term thing. It wasn’t for another year – I had given up on South Africa. I like the way of life here, and I like the challenges as well. When you come to a country and don’t know the language and you don’t have the religion either, you’re treated differently. You have to fight for your own independent standards.”
AFTER A FEW years in Israel, Lawn decided to convert to Judaism. She brought her trademark assertiveness to the conversion process as well.
“[My conversion teacher] would say, ‘You have to do this and you have to do that.’ And I said to her, ‘I just came out of one religion and now I’m joining another. I don’t want to know what I have to do, I want to know why I have to do it, and then I’ll tell you what I’ll think about it!”
Lawn laughs when she remembers the reaction of the teacher. “She said she’d never met anyone like me.”
Never one to take the easy path, Lawn extended her conversion classes by a year because she felt that she didn’t have adequate knowledge. Lawn’s family back in Ireland was not close knit, but her decision to convert nevertheless shocked her deeply religious family.
“When I converted, my rabbi convinced me to go and see my family afterwards... My father didn’t even answer the letters I wrote to him, so I just took the train there from Belfast. I opened the front door and he was walking down the stairs, and he says to me ‘Oh, the mountain came to Muhammad.’ I burst out laughing. I said: ‘You’re Christian, I’m Jewish, and we’re talking about Muhammad?’”
Later, her father went to talk to a local Jesuit priest to discuss his daughter’s conversion. “Thank God he went to a Jesuit,” Lawn says, “because the Jesuits are the intellectuals of the church. And the Jesuit says to him, ‘Mr. Lawn, what are you worried about? It’s much more difficult being Jewish than being Christian. They’ve got dietary laws, they’ve got 613 rules, they’ve got all sorts of things.’”
Taking the more difficult route, through religion, education or lifestyle, is a theme that’s stayed with Lawn throughout her life. It doesn’t bother her that she has a reputation for being assertive and strong-handed in the hospital. In her farewell video, plenty of doctors made jokes about the various rules Lawn was famous for enforcing: masks required at all times in the operating rooms, and no cellphone conversations while with patients.
“When they were making a video for my retirement, the girl asked me if I had any regrets. I told her I had one regret: that I didn’t learn Hebrew,” Lawn says. “I should have gone to a kibbutz where they speak Swahili and Japanese and Ladino and maybe I’d come out speaking Hebrew. I don’t speak or read Hebrew well. I’m sure it is isolating, but with a career and being single, you can’t do everything.”
Lawn worries a bit about the next stage of her life, being in Israelwithout Hadassah, but she knows she’ll enjoy being retired. After 37years of waking every day at 4:45 a.m. and arriving at the officebefore 7:00, Lawn now lets herself sleep until 6:45 a.m. She plans topaint more, a hobby she discovered after the death of her mother. Herintricate water colors reveal tranquil scenes from her native Ireland,pastures and trees and fences dappled with sunlight.
“For some reason, I can’t paint Israeli scenes,” Lawn explains. “I can only paint Ireland, I don’t know why.”
She’s looking forward to hosting family and friends in her spaciousapartment in Gilo, catching up with old friends, and being Israeliwithout being a nurse – two things that have been central to heridentity. Looking back over her 37 years here, Lawn muses howeverything has changed: nursing, Israel, the patients who have touchedher life. “When you think about it now, and you look back, thetechnology of today is so incredible. It’s amazing. It’s like sciencefiction sometimes. Nursing today is not what it was 20 or 30 years ago.Each generation gives something, and each generation takes somethingaway from it as well.”