Sally Oren, wife of Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren and mother of three, is a breath of fresh air to the formal atmosphere of diplomacy. Although this casual, athletic woman may be more at home practicing yoga and tai chi or rowing with her husband on the Potomac River than wearing chiffon and standing in a receiving line, she feels a great sense of purpose as a diplomatic spouse.
“We are unusual because we’re the first couple representing Israel here who are both native-born Americans. The fact that we both, early on and separately, made a decision ‘to make aliyah’ — move to Israel permanently and make it home — is a testament to our devotion to the State of Israel. The Jewish-American community, the largest Jewish population outside Israel, was particularly thrilled when Michael was appointed because they knew him through his two New York Times best-selling books,” she explained, referring to “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” and “Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present.”
“It is an incredible honor and privilege to be representing Israel in the United States,” added Sally, a former modern dancer who moved to Israel in 1981 at the age of 29 and immediately started the three-year process to become an Israeli citizen. “We are very clear that we’re not just representing ourselves here. I am not just Sally Oren anymore; I am very aware that I am the wife of the Israeli ambassador and have to live that role.”
The couple arrived in Washington in the fall of 2008, when he became a visiting professor at Georgetown University. It had been 25 years since they had lived in the United States, but they would have front-row seats for several fascinating months that included a historic presidential campaign and the inauguration of America’s new president, as well as a new government in Israel.
“Michael’s appointment was out of the box,” Sally said, “but as a world expert on U.S.-Israel relations and a former American citizen, he is a person who can best explain Americans to Israelis and Israelis to Americans.”
The couple’s comfort with both nationalities didn’t mean they were instantly accustomed the world of Washington diplomacy. “At first I was intimidated,” Sally admitted, “but people have been delightful, warm and accepting. We learned to simply say, ‘Hello, we’re Sally and Michael.’”
Nevertheless, Sally says she is impressed that her husband has had the opportunity to meet and talk with five former American presidents and that she has met three. “That just astounds me.”
Because of Israel’s high profile in the United States, Sally thinks that her role may be different from many diplomatic spouses. “America is our greatest ally and crucial to Israel. We have a very important relationship with the U.S. and are involved at all levels of American government and society.”
Growing up in San Francisco where she “went to sleep most nights listening to fog horns,” Sally admitted that she went through “wardrobe shock” after her husband was chosen to be Israel’s next envoy. “Israel is so casual and I am too,” she explained, dressed in a stylish white shirt over black slacks and a black shell. “Even when I’m dressed up, my style is pretty relaxed. I have to be comfortable.
“Since Michael is a political appointee,” she continued, “and not a career diplomat, we’ve had very little exposure to diplomatic traditions before this. Everything was new to us except that he was already hooked into Washington’s political scene and we were part of the community…. Now as diplomats, there is more depth and meaning in everything we do.”
Just then, the ambassador — also dressed casually on a Friday — dropped by on his way to the office to offer words of support for his wife, and to confirm their plans for the weekend.
“She’s irreplaceable,” he told The Washington Diplomat. “I couldn’t do without her. She’s Israel’s secret asset in the capital of Israel’s closest and most vital ally.”
The ambassador then had to dash, but would begin the weekend uncharacteristically early with a drive to see the fall colors in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. “He was supposed to be out of town this weekend so when his trip was cancelled, we decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity,” Sally noted. “Michael has learned that he must make time for physical exercise, away from his demanding job, to keep his equilibrium.”
Their private life may still seem casual and down to earth, but this diplomatic couple is never without a security detail. “Michael doesn’t go anywhere here without his bodyguard and driver,” Sally said. “One day last winter when the snow was so high, he was given permission to walk out the front door, which he had never done before. Then, his security team joined us for a long walk in the neighborhood.”
It’s just the latest chapter in an interesting life journey for both of them. “We both come from prominent Zionist-American families,” Sally said. “Michael was born in upstate New York but grew up in New Jersey and is a graduate of Columbia and Princeton. He moved to Israel and became a citizen after Columbia. I am third-generation Californian, itself unusual for an American Jew since most Jewish families were more likely to have settled on the East Coast.
“As a child, I had exposure to Israelis who I thought were very exciting, very exotic. I also had many Jewish friends, but my family’s Zionism seemed out of sync with all the other kids’ families,” Sally recalled.
“My family was very adventurous and the idea of Israel always loomed large in our lives. In 1961, my parents took their first trip to Israel and absolutely fell in love with the country; we almost moved there when I was 10. Not knowing what to expect, my greatest fear was that I would have to give up ballet that I had started at 6.”
Between high school and college, Sally and her oldest sister Joan spent two years traveling, first in Europe and then in Israel, where they studied Hebrew and volunteered on various kibbutzim. “I just felt at home. I loved San Francisco and growing up there, but I connected with Israel on an emotional level — the feeling of the greater family and communal social life. I knew then that one day I was going to live in Israel.”
When her father turned 50 in 1976, Sally’s parents suddenly decided to pick up and move to Israel, 15 years after their original trip. Her sister Nancy had already moved, married and had a child there. At the time, Sally, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of California at Berkeley with a major in Near Eastern studies and a minor in dance, was moving to New York to pursue a career in modern dance. “I remember being annoyed,” she said. “I thought they were living out ‘my dream’ and, at the same time, they were taking away my home base.”
Anxious to get back to Israel herself, Sally left New York after five years, joining her parents and sisters Nancy and Amy. In Jerusalem, Sally began teaching dance and soon afterward met her husband, who had just completed his military service. They married in the summer of 1982 and returned to the United States in 1984 for his doctoral studies at Princeton, where their first child Yoav was born.
Once back in Israel, they had two more children, Lia and Noam. Sally continued to teach dance while her husband worked on a post-doctoral at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Later, they moved their young family to Midreshet Sde Boker, a small desert community where they lived for five years while he was a research fellow at Ben-Gurion University. “It was wonderful to raise three small children within this tight-knit community on the edge of the desert, which itself offered so many adventures.
“The desert speaks to my soul,” Sally added. “There is a unique, stark beauty about it, almost like a moonscape. It’s not just sand dunes. There’s so much more to discover: stone cliffs, different colored sand, all types of cacti, wildflowers and then, the occasional oasis.”
After moving back to Jerusalem, her husband served as an advisor in the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin while Sally continued to teach dance and began studying tai chi.
Then tragedy struck in August 1995. “My sister, Joanie, was killed in the first terrorist bus bombing in Jerusalem,” Sally said. “It was horrific. We were so close. She was my old traveling partner and we had just spent a solid month together as she settled in for her fellowship at Hebrew University. I had even seen her the night before.”
The next morning when Sally’s family first heard about the bombing, they tried to reach her by phone. “In Israel,” Sally explained, “when there is trouble, you call your entire family to let everyone know you’re OK. So when we didn’t hear from her, we thought she just didn’t know the routine. Then we found out she never got to school.
“By 8:30 a.m., my father and I started going from hospital to hospital, worried that no one would know to contact us because Joanie was using her married name and carrying an American passport. At the last hospital that afternoon, they gave us a social worker to go with us to the national morgue in Tel Aviv. It was 4:30 before we identified Joanie’s body. Only two people were killed on each bus. She was in the bus passing the one with the bomb,” Sally said. “My parents received a letter from President Clinton since Joanie was an American citizen and Yitzhak Rabin expressing their condolences. What made it doubly hard was that two months and two weeks later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Our personal, individual mourning became a national mourning.”
After Joanie’s death and Rabin’s assassination by an Israeli radical, Sally felt even more committed to Israel. However, she does worry that there is a perception from outside the country that Israelis live in a constant state of fear.
“Danger can be anywhere. San Francisco has earthquakes and Florida has hurricanes,” she said. “I want people to know that Israel is an incredibly vibrant society, very rich culturally, an exciting place to be. ‘The Big Orange’ [Tel Aviv’s nickname, like New York’s Big Apple] has beaches and nightlife, while just 45 minutes away is Jerusalem — entirely different, exotic and spiritual with its colorful fairs and festivals.”
To that end, an invariable part of Sally’s job here in Washington is dispelling misconceptions about Israel — and even about her and her husband. “Since we are native English-speakers and sound so American, it can be confusing to people here and in Israel. They often ask Michael, ‘Are you the American ambassador to Israel?’ And over there, sometimes people don’t get it, and may even question our loyalty since we came by choice, not fleeing from persecution or economic difficulties — in fact the exact opposite. I didn’t leave America because I was suffering. I was leaving things I love to come to a place where I felt an even deeper connection,” Sally explained.
Before leaving Israel in 2008, Sally worked with Taglit-Birthright Israel, a popular program that over the past 10 years has brought more than 250,000 young Jewish adults from all over the world for a 10-day educational trip to Israel. “This has proven to be a life-changing experience, making Israel an integral part of the lives of these young Jews living in the Diaspora,” Sally noted.
In Washington, Sally is active in the diplomatic and the Jewish-American community. She often has school children over for holiday festivities and hosts Washington’s top-tier U.S. government officials and Israeli supporters while finding time to go to museums, take yoga classes and row on the Potomac with her husband, a former member of the crew team at Columbia University.
She keeps in close touch with their children by Skype and e-mail. “Yoav is now 27 and studying in China, Lia is 24 and studying literature at Ben-Gurion University, and 20-year-old Noam serves in the Israeli Army,” Sally said.
“I remember Michael asking our kids during a particularly stressful time in Israel, ‘Did we make a mistake by bringing you up in Israel?’ And they said, ‘We are so grateful. This is where we belong. This is where I want to be.’” Still, some old American friends and family hope the Orens might stay on U.S. soil after his appointment as ambassador is over. “When we were in Israel, these same people here used to ask, ‘When are you coming home?’” and Sally answered back from Jerusalem, “After 30 years in Israel, we are home.”
About the Author
Gail Scott is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat and lifestyle columnist for the Diplomatic Pouch.