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.