I had never even been on a tour of the White House, so being invited to perform Jewish a cappella music with Six13 for President Obama and the First Lady for their final Hanukkah celebration was a particularly high honor.
It was an unforgettable experience. We performed easily recognizable Jewish and Six13 songs, mostly Hanukkah songs, for the first half hour in the lobby as hundreds of guests walked into the main room where the celebration took place. I recognized numerous colleagues of mine from the cantorial and rabbinic communities — prominent leaders from the Reform movement and other important Jewish organizations — as well as influential Jewish politicians, including Congressman Jerry Nadler and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
We were then ushered into the Diplomatic Reception Room where we nervously waited to take official White House photos with President Obama and the First Lady. President Obama walked in and in his inimitable fashion said, “Is this Six13 from New York City?” At which point we all erupted into chatter with him and the First Lady, introducing ourselves and shaking hands with them. I was immediately struck by how personable the two of them felt. They weren’t aloof or distant or rushed — they connected with us eye to eye and not only shook hands, but embraced us with wide-open arms, making an extra effort to get to know each of us.
Following the official group photo — no personal photos or videos were allowed during this private session — President Obama asked us for a “sample,” which was an abridged version of the new Hamilton remix that Mike Boxer, founder and director of Six13, had cleverly arranged with new Hanukkah lyrics. Hamilton was the obvious choice, not only because of the national obsession with the hit Broadway musical, but also because Michelle Obama had said in March that it was “the best art I have ever seen in my life.” We didn’t announce to them what we were going to perform; Mike simply said, “you may know this…” before we launched into the remix.
The Obamas were riveted. Their faces lit up as they grooved along with our voices rapping and singing our way through the remix. We closed dramatically with the most climactic part of the song since we had been given a strict time limit. The room burst into applause and President Obama and the First Lady both shouted out something like this: “Wow! That was the best! Right there. That was the best. That was it, am I wrong? That was awesome. We’ve had some good ones, but… This is not just because we are Hamilton fans, but that was really appreciated!” They then asked us who did the lyrics, who did the arrangement, how often we rehearse, how often we perform, as well as what we all do when we aren’t in Six13.
I proudly got to tell them that I am the cantor at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, and afterwards I got to tell Michelle Obama that we hosted her cousin from Chicago, Rabbi Capers Funnye, at our synagogue on Martin Luther King Day in 2008, and that Rabbi Funnye and I drove together to the inauguration the next day.
My buddies in Six13 pointed out that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg had also come in to watch us perform, as well as Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer. I hadn’t even noticed them walking in with the Obamas!
After a break we performed another one-hour set that closed off the evening’s festivities. Many guests continued to stop and listen to us and there were a number of people, especially kids, who spent more time watching us perform than staying on with the festivities in the main hall.
My favorite part of the evening was connecting with the Obamas, but being able to sing for my colleagues was also a big deal for me. They seemed genuinely proud of me and Six13, and for all of these reasons it will be an evening that I will never forget. I also just love singing and having fun with my good friends in Six13 any time I can fit it into my busy schedule. Any activity that features comedy, singing, and Judaism is a winning combination.