Sketch March 2013

Six Degrees of Sally Oren

Just one woman links Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, and Bibi Netanyahu.
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John Cuneo

Scholars of Middle East politics and students of the San Francisco–centered psychedelic-rock movement of the 1960s have for years asked the same vexing question: Just how many degrees of separation exist between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia?

The answer, it turns out, is one. The person who connects Benjamin Netanyahu directly to Jerry Garcia—and Shimon Peres to Jim Morrison, and, for that matter, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to Janis Joplin—is Sally Oren, the wife of Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Oren, who today is in her early 60s, plays the role of diplomat’s spouse with distinction and grace. She hosts embassy functions and speaks at Jewish communal gatherings; she wears elegant gowns and attends White House parties. Forty-five years ago, however, she played Frisbee with the Grateful Dead and served as Jefferson Airplane’s muse.

I have known Oren for years, but only recently did I learn about her strange and enchanting past. At a dinner that included senators and Supreme Court justices, her daughter, Lia, told me—apropos of what, exactly, I cannot recall—“Jefferson Airplane wrote a song about my mother.”

I trusted Lia, but something like this demanded confirmation. “Did Jefferson Airplane write a song about you?,” I asked Oren. Somewhat abashed, she answered, “Two songs, actually.”

I eventually persuaded her to tell me the full story. We met one morning at the embassy residence in Washington, D.C. The tale begins in earnest at the Fillmore, the legendary music hall in San Francisco operated by the equally legendary concert promoter Bill Graham. Oren—then Sally Edelstein—was one of four daughters of a father who owned a clothing store called Outside In, in the Mission District, and a mother who inclined toward bohemianism. The family was musically omnivorous. When Oren was 13, a family friend introduced the Edelsteins to Joan Baez and brought them to a concert in which Baez had invited her sometime boyfriend Bob Dylan to play. Oren found him “grating.”

The great innovators of psychedelic music—Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, the Dead—were more to her liking. By the time she was 15, she and her sisters were spending several nights a week at the Fillmore. When San Francisco authorities tried to ban teenagers from the hall, the Edelsteins testified before the city’s Board of Supervisors that it was a perfectly fine place for their daughters to be. “My parents were permissive, I guess,” Oren told me. As time went on, Graham, a Holocaust survivor, became a sort of surrogate father to Oren and her sisters.

The Edelstein girls were, by the straitened standards of our current age, remarkably free to do as they pleased. It helped that the Fillmore was, in fact, a serene and fairly harmless place. “We went to the YMCA dances, but they were creepy, just a rough and very rowdy crowd. Not mellow like the Fillmore,” Oren recalled. “There was some chemically induced mellowness, I admit.” It also helped that the sisters were interested in neither sex nor drugs, just in rock and roll. They were strikingly innocent: “Once, I remember, I was with my friend Fatty—we called her that because she was so skinny—and we somehow ended up in Jerry Garcia’s house in the Haight. The Dead had kind of a group house there, and there was this huge, sexually explicit photograph on the wall. I was so embarrassed.”

“Did Jefferson Airplane write a song about you?,” I asked Oren. Somewhat abashed, she answered, “Two songs, actually.”

She went on, “We were kind of mascots for the bands. I was too naive to know if anything else was going on.” She and Bob Weir, the Grateful Dead guitarist, played Frisbee in Golden Gate Park. “I would sit with these guys on Sunday afternoons at the Fillmore dance parties. I was so shy, and Jerry Garcia wouldn’t talk a lot either. We just sat there eating hot dogs.”

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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