The inaugural Jewish America Heritage Month celebration at the White House, held May 27, underscored the Obama administration's determination not to be locked into Washington's conventional notions of Jewish leadership.
President Obama did not exactly snub the usual suspects who have peopled similar events for decades. Lee Rosenberg, the president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Alan Solow, the chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, were on hand. Both also happen to have been major fund-raisers for Obama’s campaign, as were several others among the 250 or so in attendance.
But the image that the White House sought to convey was of a Jewish America not necessarily bound to the alphabet soup of the Jewish organizational world and of pro-Israelism. Instead, Obama presented an array of Jewish heroes and celebrities who pronouncedly defied Jewish stereotypes. In addition to the major givers, the entrepreneurs and the communal leaders, guests included sports heroes such as Sandy Koufax, veterans, nonprofit innovators, journalists, actors and organizers.
Obama referred also to "the countless names that we don't know -- the teachers, the small-business owners, the doctors and nurses, the people who seek only to live honestly and faithfully and to give their children more than they had."
The reception was in the works for months, and planning predated the tensions between Israel and the United States precipitated in early March when Israel announced a major housing start in eastern Jerusalem during an official visit there by Vice President Joe Biden, who also was at the reception.
Still, the White House’s pro-Jewish and pro-Israel messages were timely -- coming in the wake of a weeks-long "charm offensive" launched by the White House to help allay anxieties over the recent tensions with Jerusalem. And luckily for those seeking an unadulterated feel-good moment, the event took place days before the international furor over Israel's raid on the flotilla headed toward Gaza.
The reception included a traditional reference to the "unbreakable" Israel-U.S. alliance dating back to within minutes of Israel's establishment.
Jewish values, Obama said, "helped lead America to recognize and support Israel as a Jewish homeland and a beacon for democratic values -- beginning mere minutes after its independence was declared. In fact, we have the original statement by President Harry Truman on display here today."
Obama also made it clear, however, that he sees the alliance as part of America's strategy of global outreach.
"My administration is renewing American leadership around the world -- strengthening old alliances and forging new ones, defending universal values while ensuring that we uphold our values here at home," he said. "In fact, it’s our common values that leads us to stand with allies and friends, including the State of Israel.”
Overall, the festivities amounted to a bald emotional appeal to Jewish soft spots: The National Archives ran a session on stereotype-defying Jews in the military during the Civil War. The Library of Congress celebrated Jewish comediennes.
Nowhere were the emotions more in evident -- yet more controlled -- than at the White House reception.
The Heritage Month was established after legislation passed in 2006 by U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), then a freshman in Congress. In subsequent years, Jewish Democrats fumed that President George W. Bush did nothing more to mark the month than issue a proclamation.
After such griping, it raised eyebrows last year when Obama did not mark the month, so the May 27 reception was seen as inevitable. When Obama pronounced this the "first-ever" such reception, Wasserman Schultz leaned back in her chair and beamed at her congressional colleagues.
Rabbi Alyssa Stanton of Greenville, N.C., the first black female rabbi, read the poem by Emma Lazarus inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. When she smiled and raised her arm to pronounce, "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free," there was a gasp: A descendant of immigrants brought to America in chains was celebrating those who fled bondage and sought its freedom.
Regina Spektor, the "anti-folk" singer who performed on a grand piano, presented a similar contrast: An alternative music favorite of New York cosmopolitans who refuses to shake off her provincial roots as the little 9-year old refusenik who came here in 1989 and who famously told New York magazine when her career was taking off: "The Jewish question -- it still exists."
Spektor had to breathe deep before starting. Prodded by a nod and a grin from Michelle Obama, she attacked her first song, "Us," with lyrics suggestive of Jewish frustration at coping with how others define Jews: “They made a statue of us and put it on a mountaintop/ Now tourists come and stare at us, blow bubbles with their gum, take photograph, have fun."
The military veterans were guided to their seats by service personnel in white dress uniforms. Among the athletes was Dara Torres, the five-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer whose son snapped a photo of her with Obama. ("Can you beat your mom yet?" Obama shouted at the strapping teenager, who murmured "No.")
Jewish astronauts were invited, a White House official said, but none could make it -- although one, Garrett Reisman, carried Obama's proclamation into space aboard the last mission of space shuttle Atlantis, which returned to Earth last week.
There were establishment journalists, like Roger Cohen and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times, but there was also Heeb publisher Josh Newman and Doug Bloomfield, an irreverent Democrat who for years has been excoriating conservatives in Jewish weeklies. There was Michael Adler, the Florida philanthropist and vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, but there also was Eli Winkelman, the college student who founded Challah for Hunger, which brings together students to bake challahs that are sold to raise funds for Darfur.
But the star of the afternoon was Koufax, the legendary Dodgers' southpaw who made baseball history by pitching four no-hitters and Jewish history by bailing on a World Series game because it fell on Yom Kippur.
"We've got senators and representatives, we've got Supreme Court justices and successful entrepreneurs, rabbinical scholars, Olympic athletes -- and Sandy Koufax," Obama said. "Sandy and I actually have something in common -- we are both lefties. He can't pitch on Yom Kippur; I can't pitch.”