WASHINGTON - US President Barack Obama honored Jewish heritage in an unusual event at the White House on Thursday. The guest list was kept under wraps till the last moment, and in the afternoon hours many living legends of US Jewish culture began arriving to what was described as a unique event.
This was one of the busiest days in Obama's busy schedule, with the ecological disaster in the Gulf of Mexico looming over the proceedings. But an hour was found for a reception, the first of its kind, to mark Jewish Heritage Month in the US. In the main hall on the eastern wing, the US president honored Jews who had contributed to arts, music, sport and science.
Many guests were well-known personalities who are almost unknown in Israel. Ask any American and he'll tell you who Sandy Koufax is. This 75-year-old former baseball player entered the pantheon of famous Jews for something he didn't do. Koufax, who played for the Dodgers, was supposed to have been the pitcher in the World Series in 1965, but decided not to play because the game was set for Yom Kippur.
Such a decision was unheard of in the days when successful Jews would hide their Jewish background.
US President Obama addresses the guests (Photo: AP)
The US president joked that they had something in common, saying that Koufax couldn't pitch on Yom Kippur while Obama couldn't pitch at all – a reference to his less than sparkling performance on the mound when he had been asked to throw a ceremonial first pitch.
A big surprise was Dara Torres, five-time Olympic swimmer famous since the Los Angeles Olympics of 1984, when she was just 17. Her last Olympic feat was in the latest Olympics in Beijing, when she won three silver medals at the age of 41. Today, at 43, she is still a striking figure, and the president and vice president enthusiastically had their photos taken with her.
Other sports personalities were present. Obama, known for his love of basketball, quickly recognized Nancy Lieberman, one of the most famous basketball players, and exchanged a few words with her.
First time in White House for Regina Spektor (Photo: AP)
Among the guests was Laurie Strongin. In the 1990s, Strongin had given birth to a son with a rare bone disease that sometimes affects Ashkenazi Jews. No bone marrow donor could be found, so she and her husband decided to bring another child into the world so that he could donate bone marrow to his elder brother. This was a controversial act, and unfortunately the second child was unsuitable as a bone marrow donor and his elder brother passed away at the age of seven. Strongin later wrote a book about her experiences.
Mark Schneier, who concentrates on developing ties with the Muslim world, and with African Americans in the US, noted the uniqueness of the occasion, saying it was much more exotic than most White House events. William Daroff, Director of the Washington Office of United Jewish Communities, noted that anything new in Washington is a big deal.
Also present were Justice of the Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author Judy Blume, New York Times columnists Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, historian Professor Lauren Strauss, Nobel laureate Robert Pinsky, and Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug, who led the US team to a gold medal.
Is this part of Obama's "charm offensive" on the Jews? A US Jew who was not invited said that while there is certainly such an "offensive", nonetheless "a cigar is a cigar" – and not everything Obama does is connected to the "charm offensive."
Alysa Stanton was invited, however, and even gave a speech. Stanton, an African American, converted to Judaism and became a Reform rabbi.
Musician Regina Spektor sang two songs for the guests.