Six Degrees of Sally Oren

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

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.”

Her parents were around, of course, and they were, at times, maddeningly, ineffably parental. Oren recalls running into her mother at a concert in Golden Gate Park. “She was hanging out with this circle of women, and she was so impressed by them. I remember her saying, ‘Your whole scene is so nice. There was this really homely girl in our circle, and everybody was doting on her, not ignoring her at all. They were really so kind.’ ” An hour later, Oren bumped into her mother again. Her mother looked up to the stage. “There she is!” she said. “There’s that girl I was telling you about!” It was Janis Joplin.

Oren knew Joplin, although the singer was closer to Oren’s older sister Joanie, who by then was working at the Fillmore. “Janis was very needy,” Oren recalled. “Joanie didn’t mind as much. It was very hard to have a friendship with her. She was so full of insecurities.”

By the Summer of Love, in 1967, Oren, then 16, was seeing every band worth seeing—Cream, the Doors, the Who. “I didn’t meet Jimi Hendrix, but he was fantastic.” She had only a nodding acquaintance with other artists. “With Jim Morrison it was sort of a ‘Hi, hi, how are you?’ sort of thing,” she said. She knew and loved Jefferson Airplane best. After the first Human Be-In, in January 1967, Jorma Kaukonen, the Airplane’s lead guitarist—“a Finnish Jew,” Oren noted—drove her home, where she served him milk and cookies. And she had a schoolgirl crush on Marty Balin, one of the group’s main songwriters.

“I always wanted to position myself so that I would run into Marty. So one day I see him, and he says, ‘Hey, Sally, we just wrote two songs about you.’ I probably turned purple from embarrassment.” The first song, “Sally, Sally,” was never recorded. The second, “Young Girl Sunday Blues,” would appear on the group’s third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s.

“Marty stood there in the hallway and sang it to me,” she said. “ ‘Don’t you know what I have found? / Maybe you’ve found it too / Today is made of yesterday and tomorrow / Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow.’ ”

Oren’s reaction? “What do you say, as a 16-year-old?” She tried to remember if she’d had many sorrows. “I probably mooned around a lot.”

A short time later, Jefferson Airplane sang “Young Girl Sunday Blues” on the Fillmore stage. “Paul Kantner announced that this song is to, for, and about Sally,” she said. “At which point my sister broke out crying. The whole thing was really freaky.”

When Oren was 17 and a half, she left San Francisco with Joanie to travel in Europe for two years. It was early 1969, and the magic was ending. “Haight Street got really creepy, really druggy—ugly druggy, a lot of speed and heroin. The whole thing came apart.”

She eventually returned to California, got an education, moved to Israel, and married Michael. She built a career, had three children, experienced tragedy—Joanie was killed in a Hamas suicide bombing in Jerusalem in 1995, and one of her sons was shot and wounded while serving in the Israeli army. Eventually she found her way back to America, under very different circumstances. From time to time, her past life resurfaces. When Carlos Santana played in Israel, Oren brought her father. “We met the band, and one of the guys said, ‘Hey, Burt, we used to rip off your store!’ ”

As we sat in her heavily guarded embassy residence, I asked Oren why she doesn’t talk more about her teenage years. “I don’t know,” she said. “Given what I do today, I’m not sure people would believe me.”