Last week, I came very close to witnessing the Prophet Zechariah’s vision of many nations gathering together in Jerusalem to worship God on Sukkot. I was actually not in Jerusalem, but if the Israeli Ambassador’s residence in Washington, DC, is considered Israeli soil, then I came awfully close.
During the holidays, my dear friend, the recently appointed Ambassador to the United States, the Honorable Michael Oren, called and invited me to officiate at a special Sukkot dinner he and his wife Sally were hosting in the Ambassador’s residence. I accepted, and in addition to touring the great sites of Washington, D.C. for two days with our kids, my wife Peni and I were privileged to attend what was truly a special evening.
So, who was there? A total of thirty two guests enjoyed Sukkot dinner together. Prominent amongst them were Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Egyptian Ambassador Sameh Shoukry, Imam Yahya Hendi of Georgetown, two representatives from the Palestinian Authority, Senator Diane Feinstein, Congressman Howard Berman and Congressman Robert Wexler, Ambassador Dennis Ross, and George Stephanopoulos. The gracious hosts for the evening were Ambassador Michael and Mrs. Sally Oren, Israel’s “first couple” in the United States.
Who are Michael and Sally Oren? Born and raised in the United States, they are the best of what North American aliyah has brought to Israel. Passionate Zionists, dedicated parents of three wonderful children, highly educated and deeply committed to Israel’s continued advancement as a society, Michael and Sally – perhaps because they are both Olim – bring to this position a special pride as Americans who have fulfilled the “Zionist Dream.”
Michael is a world class scholar with degrees in Middle East history from Columbia and Princeton. He served as a paratrooper in the first Lebanon War in 1982, and in between his research work as a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, he managed to serve as an IDF spokesman on television during both the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and Operation Cast Lead in Gaza in 2009. The author of three books, including his recent and most unique study – “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776-Present,” Oren is an outstanding scholar and brilliant orator.
Around the Sukkot table, Oren held the entire gathering in awe, as he told us the story of how the Statue of Liberty was originally designed to guard the waterways of the Suez Canal, not the shores of New York. With eloquence, surefire knowledge, and a good sense of humor, Oren told the story of how “Lady Liberty” went from being Egyptian to American. He did this with the Egyptian Ambassador seated immediately to his right.
He is also a skilled diplomat, and with US Senators and foreign ambassadors flanking you, you better be! Senator Diane Feinstein, seated opposite Mr. Oren, raised with grave concern the issue of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas potentially joining forces. When challenged by the Egyptian Ambassador, sparking a bit of a heated exchange, Oren raised his glass of wine to Feinstein, asking her – as a Senator from “Wine Country” (California) – how she thought Israeli wines compared to those from her home state. She tasted the Israeli wine and commented “It’s a good starter wine.” Oren deftly changed the subject, and avoided an international showdown across a Sukkot table!
The touch of class for the evening was provided by Sally Oren, Michael’s charming wife. In addition to being a gracious host, she also put serious thought into the evening’s menu. Following my remarks on the symbolism of the Sukkah and the “Arba Minim,” Sally explained to the distinguished gathering that tonight’s dinner would include all of the “Shiva Minim” – the seven fruits and grains of the Land of Israel described in the Bible. From the soup through the desert, we were treated to a delicious dinner whose ingredients included wheat, barley, pomegranates, dates, olives, figs, and – of course – grapes, in the form of some very fine wine. Our dinner was a taste of the Land of Israel, conceived by a woman who represents Israel with taste and class.
The Ambassador and his wife took great care to make sure that everything was done in accordance with respect for Jewish tradition. They had kippot for everybody, beautiful birkonim (miniature books with blessings and the grace after meals) with the emblem of Israel on the cover, a beautiful Sukkah decorated by local Jewish Day Schools kids (including one of Rahm Emmanuel’s daughters), and a Lulav and Etrog. In addition to my remarks about Sukkot, Michael also spoke about Sukkot, and his presentation could have been a sermon in any synagogue.
Michael and Sally Oren are not only proud Israelis, they are also proud Jews. In an era when Israel is now including in its political dialogue that the Arab world must recognize Israel as “A Jewish State,” Israel could not have asked for a better “first couple” representing them in Washington, D.C.
Daniel Bouskila is senior rabbi at Sephardic Temple Tiffereth Israel.