I hadn’t slept for over 36 hours—the chance to give a handmade gift to President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, a dream come true, can do that to a person. In all actuality, I’d been restless for almost five months.
Last year, at the White House Hanukkah celebration, the President and First Lady lit the menorah and joined the audience in singing “Ma’oz Tzur,” which I belted out with passion. Afterward, the Obamas shook hands with the Jewish community in the audience. When they walked my way, I spontaneously promised to bring them a gold and silver yarmulke.
“I always wanted a gold and silver yarmulke,” President Obama responded. The words have replayed in my mind ever since.
The truth is that when I promised them the gift, it just sort of came out: in that Hanukkah moment, I felt a strong yet ephemeral feeling of clarity, which, truth be told, can sometimes elude me.
As a Jewish entertainer for the past 17 years, I have traveled the world performing at weddings and concerts. But it’s not only my voice that’s unique; I also make a point to wear various special accessories, from my eyeglasses to my colorful bekishe. Perhaps most of all, I am proud of the yarmulke that I wear atop my head, an expression of my creativity, personality, and commitment to my Jewish faith. In bringing the president something a garment that means so much to me, I hoped that powerful connection—of individuality and spirituality—would be passed along to him, regardless of his religion.
I asked for friend’s assistance in helping to conceptualize the yarmulke design. He agreed, and in exchange I helped him write Yiddish lyrics to a few songs he had recently composed. Oh, the joys of friendship! Then, I visited another friend at Brooklyn’s Best Embroidery, a specialty shop that designs everything from tallits and chuppas, to Torah covers and cases.
While I had noted to the Obamas that the yarmulke would be “gold and silver,” I quickly realized that I would have to stay away from using real gold for, well, practical reasons: it’s quite expensive. So I decided to attach silver buttons, similar to those that are placed on the atarah, or, neckband, of a tallit. I included the names of the President and First Lady, along with the colors of the American and Israeli flags. I also included designs of The White House and Tower of David in Jerusalem. And, as the work on the yarmulke neared completion, I decided to focus my creative energies on writing a poem in appreciation of the president.
Last week, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to give a concert at a local synagogue in honor of Israel’s Independence Day. I decided it was the right time to give the Obamas my gift. I arrived at the White House at 2:30 p.m. on Yom Ha’aztzmaut for a planned meeting with my liaison there, and for a private tour of the White House. I was told that I would not be presenting the gifts directly to the Leader of the Free World, but I already knew that. Still, my liaison explained to me that he would “give it to [President Obama’s] outer Oval Office team, just so it doesn’t go to a warehouse or anything like that, so he will be able to see it.”
I don’t know how, or even if, the President and the First Lady will use my yarmulke gift, or whether they’ll hang the velvet embroidered poem, entitled “Obamaism,” on the wall in their palatial Washington, D.C. home. Maybe they’ll find a place for it when they move out of the White House. But I’m not disappointed. I followed through with a promise, which made me appreciate how lucky I am for the opportunities I have in my life, and for the opportunity to present the Obamas with two gifts that represent Jewish culture. I am honored to act in that role.
When feeling grateful
I thank Obama
When praying kingdoms
I breath Obama
When lacking acceptance
I thirst Obama
When needing healing
I treasure Obama
When putting on Yarmulkas
I trust Obama
When lighting candles
I thrive Obama
When devouring Matzah
I trill Obama
When wishing for tolerance
I Act like Obama
But for Obama’s good fortune
I thank Michelle
Lipa Schmeltzer is a Jewish entertainer and artist, who has released 16 music albums. He is currently studying creative writing and visual arts at Columbia University and spearheads MusiCare for the Americare home care agency, where he entertains and writes poetry for Holocaust survivors. Lipa lives with his family near Monsey, New York, and is the founder and leader of the Airmont Shul, a synagogue that is known for its openness and acceptance.