When President Obama exchanged gifts with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on Wednesday, the first day of a state visit (his first to Israel as President), a sculptor in Maryland was having a “surreal” reaction. That’s because the sculptor, Zachary Oxman, made two of the gifts that were given by Obama to Netanyahu—Shabbat candlesticks for his daughter and a Kiddush goblet for his son. “To be honest, it’s incredibly surreal,” he says. “To be part of this is hard to appreciate in the moment, but looking back it will probably be even more powerful.”
Oxman has been a sculptor for more than 20 years. Though a native of Reston, Virginia, for 17 years he has made his home in suburban Maryland and has studios in Bethesda and Rockville. He says he first landed on the presidential radar when he was asked by the Clinton administration to make menorahs for the White House. He says throughout the Obama administration he has made the gift given by the President to other heads of state on official visits. In particular he mentions the visits of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh,German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Mexican President José Calderón.
Two years ago, when Shimon Peres visited just before Passover, Oxman made the seder plates presented to the Isareli President. “I was invited to Blair House and actually got to meet him,” he says. “When that happened, it felt tangible. He remembered the design and commented about them.”
Oxman describes the bronze candlesticks as “a man and a woman dancing exuberantly. They are ceremonially and culturally Shabbat, but there’s no religious connotation to them. They don’t have to be used only for Shabbat, but they can be.” The Kiddush goblet, he says, is made of cast bronze and glass. The gifts were made specially, but similar items are in his regular collection.
Of the process of making gifts for the White House and the giving of state gifts, Oxman sighs, then says, “There are many layers. It’s really through the State Department protocol office, but it filters up through the White House for final approval. It’s not a casual thing but a very important tradition of world diplomacy.