To celebrate the little-know Jewish American Heritage Month, Barack Obama threw a big chosen party last Thursday afternoon. There were Jewish writers, athletes, singers, journalists, politicians, rabbis and even the publisher of a certain Jewish culture magazine. Most of us were White House newbies, as star-struck, slack-jawed and eager to please as Monica Lewinsky on her first day as an intern. Word on the Jewish street was that the shindig was a calculated part of the administration’s quote unquote charm offensive. I was less cynical and splurged for a $7 shoe-shine in Union Station. After all, I was entering the Holy of Hollies.
The sun was sweltering, yet hardly a Jew complained as we waited to clear the airport-style metal detector. In front of me were Diane Sawyer and Mike Nichols, behind me, either Debbie Friedman or The Brady Bunch‘s Ann B. Davis. When it was time to finally enter the hallowed building, we were in awe. I walked past a couple of encased Frederic Remington sculptures and a photo of President Obama playing ping-pong. I considered dropping a couple of copies of the Future Issue into stalls of the Men’s Room, but was too afraid the cover image of a mushroom cloud over Jerusalem might get me tossed before I could hit the buffet table.
And it was a good decision. The event was, well, tasteful, which is rarely the case when Jewish heritage is represented on a stage so official. There was no cloying klezmer or even Dudu Fisher — just a classical quintet seamlessly integrating itself with a roomful of Jewish movers and shakers from Arlen Specter to Regina Spektor. A tipsy Judy Blume talked about the screenplay she just finished with her son. Welter-weight boxer Dimitry Salita circled the kosher buffet table, eying the centerpiece as if it were an opponent. Al Franken floated purposefully from luminary-to-luminary, shaking hands and gliding to the next person as if participating in a bizarre Jewish square dance. Ruth Bader Ginsberg stood alone in the corner like a shy teenager. Carl Bernstein devoured piece after piece of London broil. And Sandy Koufax patiently posed for snapshots with just about everyone, his perfect tan radiating a golden dome. Had there ever been a Jewish affair like this one?
When Obama finally arrived, he seemed dour. Clearly, a bad day. At the press conference earlier, the president expressed regret over the BP oil spill — that he didn’t move as urgently as he should have — and that mood seemed to spill over into our event. His words were softer, more deliberate. He couldn’t even get it up for the obligatory “America’s bond with Israel will go unbroken.” So much for the charm offensive theory; Obama’s trademark charm was nowhere to be found. Even so, the tipsy tribesmen and tribeswomen in attendance were having the time of their lives. Cheap dates all, 90 percent were won over just by the Presidential seal on the invitation. The free booze, especially the particularly fine shiraz, sealed the deal for the rest.
After a benediction from Alysa Stanton, the first African-American female rabbi, Regina Spektor sat down at the grand piano and performed “The Sword and the Pen” and “Us,” the latter seeming written for the occasion. (“They made a statue of us / Our noses have begun to rust.”) When she finished, the event was all of a sudden over, but like annoying cousins at a Bar Mitzvah, no one wanted to leave. Thomas Friedman dallied, sharing that he would be on iTunes that night, downloading Spektor’s oeuvre. Seven-foot tall NBA vet Danny Schayes lingered looking as if his team’s season had just ended on an improbable last second jumper. Even the mobbed Koufax hung around.
Finally, we exited the premises. Jews old and young, male and female, (even) black and white, and tall and (okay, mostly) short emptied onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Ultimately, what was distinct about the first-ever White House reception for Jewish Heritage Day wasn’t who was there, but who wasn’t: No Abe Foxman. No Joe Lieberman. Jewish Congressmen and organization heads — those who usually speak with one united voice — were mostly absent. Perhaps this eclectic group was proof that things are changing — that the president is looking for new leadership to represent a more diverse community. Or maybe it’s just likes entertaining; Now that I’m on the lookout for them, it seems like Obama just loves proclamations awarding minorities special months; Caribbean and LGBT Americans actually have to share June. Hope you have as much fun as I did, Cecily Tyson and Melissa Etheridge. Make sure to get to the shiraz.