Barack Obama got a big laugh at the Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony on Tuesday when he pretended not to know Barbra Streisand was Jewish.
It was just one of many Jewish moments in one of the most Jewish iterations of the ceremony in memory. Four of the 17 people awarded the United State’s highest civilian honor were Jews: Streisand, violin virtuoso Yitzhak Perlman, film director Steven Spielberg and composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim.
But the president only alluded to the deeply Jewish story of how posthumous honoree Shirley Chisholm — the first black congresswoman, who died in 2005 — helped introduce food stamps in the United States.
Here’s Obama on the affair: “When Shirley was assigned to the House Agricultural Committee — despite the fact that her district was from New York City — she said, ‘Apparently all they know here in Washington about Brooklyn is that a tree grew there.’ But she made the most of her new role, helping to create the supplemental nutrition program that feeds poor mothers and their children.”
In a video on Chabad’s website, David Luchins, a longtime aide to Democrats who is also active in the Orthodox Jewish community, tells the story of how Chisholm, at her retirement party in 1983, recounted that while she was initially furious, she came to see the appointment as a blessing.
This change of heart came about because a Crown Heights constituent, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe, heard she was frustrated and asked for a meeting.
As recounted in Joseph Telushkin’s 2014 book, “Rebbe,” Schneerson said to her: “What a blessing God has given you. This country has so much surplus food and there are so many hungry people and you can use this gift that God’s given you to feed hungry people. Find a creative way to do it.”
On Chisholm’s first working day in Congress, she met freshman Republican senator from Kansas and future presidential candidate Robert Dole, who happened to mention his own constituent dilemma: What to do with the surpluses his state’s farmers were producing.
Chisholm remembered Schneerson’s advice. “One second – the rabbi!” Chisholm recalled thinking, according to Luchins. The result was legislation she co-wrote with Dole massively expanding the then-infant food stamps program.
“This rabbi in Crown Heights had vision,” Chisholm said at her retirement party.
While Schneerson didn’t receive any credit at the Medal of Freedom ceremony, Judaism got plenty of love.
Obama couldn’t resist departing from script with Streisand, who has been one of his major backers and may have helped turn Florida for him in 2012 with a direct appeal to the state’s Jewish voters. Streisand in turn couldn’t resist mugging, cracking up Spielberg, who was sitting alongside her. (And baseball legend and fellow honoree Willie Mays stood up for Streisand!)
Obama peppered his tribute to Streisand with Yiddishisms commonplace – “chutzpah” – and not so commonplace – “verklempt,” saying:
“Born in Brooklyn to a middle-class Jewish family — I didn’t know you were Jewish, Barbra — Barbra Streisand attended her first Broadway show at age 14 and remembers thinking, ‘I could go up on that stage and play any role without any trouble at all.’ That’s what’s called chutzpah. And it helps when you’ve got amazing talent, all of which made her a global sensation — one whose voice has been described as “liquid diamonds,” and whose fans have considered bronzing her used coffee cups. She has sold more albums in America than any woman in history. She has collected just about every honor and award that there is. I couldn’t believe she hadn’t gotten this one. Off the stage, she has been a passionate advocate for issues like heart disease and women’s equality. I’m getting all ‘verklempt’ just thinking about it.”
There were Jewish references too in the eulogy of Spielberg, noting his role in creating the Shoah Foundation, lending “a voice to survivors of genocide around the world.” And of course, Perlman’s Israeli origins were mentioned.