Navigate to News section

Obama Fêtes the Jews

Our dispatch from the White House party

Allison Hoffman
May 28, 2010
President Obama and former Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.(All pictures Alex Wong/Getty Images)
President Obama and former Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax.(All pictures Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Of all the guests at yesterday’s first-ever reception for Jewish American Heritage Month, only one got a shout-out in President Obama’s formal remarks. “Sandy and I actually have something in common,” said Obama, directing his attention to the reclusive, legendary pitcher Sandy Koufax, who sat in the front row. “We are both lefties.” But, the president added, the similarities end there: “He can’t pitch on Yom Kippur; I can’t pitch.”

You know the old saw about how it’s always really hot on Jewish holidays? Apparently it applies to secular celebrations, too: A late-spring heat wave blanketed Washington, D.C., and while a few lucky guests bypassed the sidewalk security queue—Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, we’re looking at you—for most of the 200 or so honorees, the weather turned out to be a great equalizer that left everyone just as damp as everyone else. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman panted his way down 15th Street, jacket slung over his shoulder, trailed by J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami. Chabad emissary Chaim Bruk, in from Montana, sweated it out with former Dallas Cowboys lineman Alan Veingrad. A lucky few clustered beneath the shade of umbrellas, which were originally packed for the predicted thunderstorms.

But never mind. There was air-conditioning in the grand hall behind the north Portico, and the Marine Band played a selection of Gershwin and Irving Berlin favorites from the (Jewish) American Songbook. There was a bar serving everything from club soda to Kedem, and waiters circulating with trays of kosher goodies. Press wasn’t allowed in to this portion of the day, but food writer (and Tablet Magazine contributor) Joan Nathan told The Scroll that the crew from Dahan Caterers put out an Israeli-inflected hors d’oeuvres smorgasbord that included eggplant salad, sweet couscous, and fresh tomatoes. Still, some people skipped it. “I stuff myself on my own time,” Gary Rosenbaum, a Democratic donor who is also the chairman and CEO of Empire Kosher Poultry, told us. “I like to talk to people at things like this.”

What people? Well, there was American-born Israeli ambassador Michael Oren and Solicitor General (oh, and U.S. Supreme Court nominee) Elena Kagan; author Judy Blume, and the Olympic swimmer Dara Torres; actor Theodore Bikel and a delegation from Hawaii, decked out in cheerful floral leis. “I really wanted to make sure it wasn’t only Jews at the event,” explained Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic Florida congresswoman. Along with forcibly outgoing Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pennsylvania), Wasserman Schultz spearheaded the legislation that in 2006 got May declared Jewish American Heritage Month. She said she’s been pestering to get an event at the White House ever since. “The point was to celebrate our culture and contribution with people who aren’t Jewish so they can learn about our community,” she explained.

There were notably few leaders of established Jewish communal organizations, though Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations chair Alan Solow (whom I have profiled) and Jewish Federations of North America head Jerry Silverman did show. The White House made an effort, according to several people familiar with the planning, to invite people who weren’t at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue’s Hanukkah party in December, including younger Jewish innovators like Shawn Landres, of JumpStart, Rabbi Sharon Brous of Los Angeles’s Ikar religious community, and Aaron Bisman, of JDub Records, who is a noted FOTM (Friend of Tablet Magazine).

After an hour or so, the assembly was ushered into the ornate East Room, where two rows were reserved for attending members of Congress—a group that included Minnesota Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota). Specter sat in the front row, alongside Vice President Joe Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama, who floated in wearing a navy-and-white polka-dot dress and navy patent-leather pumps; joining them were Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who had on a ladylike pair of black lace gloves with her black-and-white outfit.

Justices Ginsburg and Breyer; the Vice President; the First Lady.

Obama discussed the 350-year history of Jews in America, and repeated his promise that the bond between the United States and Israel is “unbreakable.” People clapped. As he stepped down to take his seat, a little boy—who turned out to be 8-year-old Logan Schayes, grandson of NBA Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and son of former Orlando Magic center Danny Schayes and Olympic diver Wendy Lucero—ran up to present the president with a rolled-up photograph of the NBA’s 50 greatest players. “He’s such a basketball fan, I thought he’d enjoy it,” the eldest Schayes, now 82, said when Tablet Magazine caught up with him later in the afternoon.

Then Alysa Stanton, the first female African-American rabbi, stood and read Emma Lazarus’ poem “The New Colossus” (did we mention Nextbook Press has published a Lazarus biography by Esther Schor?) and singer/songwriter Regina Spektor nervously worked her way through her hits “Us” and “The Sword and the Pen.” More than a few people held up cell phones and video cameras, but not everyone was so thrilled. “I left the room because she was a woman singer—because of my faith,” explained Veingrad, the former Cowboy, who has become observant since his retirement from football. But his friend, Dmitry “Star of David” Salita, the Ukrainian-born, Brooklyn-trained boxer, seemed unfazed. “Here in the United States of America,” he said, “I can wear my yarmulke in the White House.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.