In a ceremony at the White House on Tuesday, 17 “extraordinary” individuals received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor. Among the recipients were two Hall of Fame baseball players—Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, who died in September—singers Gloria Estefan and James Taylor, and four Jewish honorees: Barbra Streisand, Stephen Sondheim, Steven Spielberg, and Itzhak Perlman.
Of Streisand, Obama said lightly, “Born in Brooklyn to a middle-class Jewish family”—he interrupted himself—”I didn’t know you were Jewish Barbara…”
He continued: “Barbra Streisand attended her first Broadway show at age 14 and remembers thinking, ‘I could go up on that stage and play any role without any trouble at all.’ That’s what’s called chutzpah.” (Obama hasn’t perfected the phlegmy “ch” and says “hootspa” instead, but I still love him for trying.) An accomplished actress, Streisand is also the best-selling female recording artist in history, a fact the president made sure to mention.
Following Babs, Obama honored Itzhak Perlman, an Israeli-American whom Tablet contributor Allison Hoffman once called “the patron saint of concert violinists.” “In an interview, violinist Itzhak Perlman was once asked what sound he loves. His eyes lit up and he replied: ‘The sound of onions sizzling in a pan,’” Obama said, chuckling. The strings virtuoso, whose lost the use of his legs due to polio when he was just 4 years old, has persevered, “becoming a powerful advocate for people with disabilities,” said Obama. (Perlman is the fourth Israeli to be given this honor.)
For legendary composer and lyricist Sondheim, Obama adopted a more pensive tone. “His greatest hits aren’t tunes you can hum. They are reflections on roads we didn’t take and wishes gone wrong, relationships so frayed and fractured there’s nothing left to do but ‘Send in the Clowns,’” he said, alluding to one of the songwriter’s famous tunes (which Streisand has covered).
As for acclaimed director Spielberg, Obama, yet again reverted to his playful charm. “Here’s how Steven Spielberg once explained his creative process: ‘Once a month, the sky falls on my head; I come to and I see another movie I want to make.’” Standing behind a podium with the presidential seal, Obama teased, “This sounds painful.”
Obama went on to say that Spielberg’s movies are all marked by a faith in our common humanity. “The same faith in humanity that led him to create the Shoah Foundation and lend a voice to survivors of genocide around the world,” he said.
Other honorees included NASA mathematician Katherine G. Johnson, and former Environmental Protection Agency head William Ruckelshaus. Watch the whole ceremony below:
Tess Cutler is an intern at Tablet.