Chanukah at the White House

My new favorite way to celebrate Chanukah is lighting candles with Barack Obama.

The White House Chanukah Party was held Dec 5, a day after Chanukah.  It was my first time attending the annual event, which President George W. Bush began in 2001.  I don’t expect it’s one of those experiences I’ll ever get used to.

This year the White House held two Chanuka parties, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, each for about 400 invited guests. 

Why in this year did Obama dip twice?

“Frankly,” one long time guest, a well-known pundit, told me,  “he needs Jewish support,” 

The evening party began at 6 pm.  We lined up outside the East Wing and proceeded slowly through three stations of security.

The doors to the East Wing were ringed in gold wreaths. A Marine guard greeted us, and we made our way down a hallway lined with family pictures of Christmases past—the Clintons, the Bushes, the  Obamas– those families.

The rooms inside were a Christmas fantasy.   The first tree was decorated with gold stars, to honor service men and women killed in the line of duty.  Guests stopped and wrote personal holiday notes to soldiers.

As we entered, the a capella group Pizmon, composed of students from Columbia and Jewish Theological Seminary, sang Hebrew songs.  Large oil portraits of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson looked down.

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Inside, more trees — so many trees! — and bunting and crèches.  The effect was warm and festive, not gaudy. Each room was a small museum of presidential portraits, American art, rare books. 

In the two larger rooms, four buffet tables bore endless platters of grilled vegetables, tabouli salad, chicken galantine, pastries and of course crisp latkes, each the size of a Kennedy half dollar. Rabbi Levi Shemtov supervised the White House kitchen for the event, making it kosher. Lamb was specially butchered to produce thick, lollipop-sized chops, each seared until just pink, and exquisitely tender.

“I think I ate a whole flock,” said one guest.

Rabbi Shemtov also oversaw the installation of the giant menorah on the Mall. We stood in front of the curved bay window in the Red Room and the bearded Lubavitch rabbi pointed it out to me, shining in the distance.  Two feet behind us in the center of the room rose a massive decorated Christmas tree. 

Most Jewish events are fundraisers, heavy on donors, or conferences, heavy on professionals, or services, heavy on rabbis.  At the White House Chanukkah, they all come together.  I spotted journalists (Jeffrey Goldberg and David Makovsky),  academics (Norman Ornstein and Dr. Arnold Eisen), rabbis (Capers Funnye, Shmuely Yakelovitz, David Ingber, Noah Farkas, Sharon Brous), Jewish professionals (Rachel Levin, Malcolm Hoenlein), professional atheletes (Craig Breslow  of the Boston Red Sox, the Houston Rockets’ Omri Casspi), Israeli Americans (Adam Milstein), cookbook author Joan Nathan, consultant Steve Rabinowitz, all four Jewish Supreme Court Justices, Congressman Henry Waxman and Brad Sherman, former congressmen Robert Wexler and Howard Berman, and White House staffers (Special Assistant to the President Jonathan Greenblatt and Matt Nosanchuk, the new Director of Jewish Outreach as well as many lay community leaders and donors.

There were rabbis of all denominations, from Lubavitch to Reconstructionist, and Jews of all political stripes. To get such a diverse group of Jews together and celebrating under one roof you’d have to be, well, President of the United States.

“You’re not exactly a fan,” one woman said to her husband as they posed in the Obama’s entryway.   

The husband took a few steps until he was beneath a portrait of former First Lady Laura Bush.

“Here,” he said, “now take the picture.”

Before the President and First Lady Michelle Obama entered and after they left, the most well-known face in the room was the man standing by a Christmas tree in the State Dining room, surrounded by a admirers:  Larry David.  The other celebrity in the crowd was Joshua Malina, who came with his wife Melissa Merwin. Malina  currently stars in the White House centered-drama Scandals.   

“You must have been here before,” a guest asked Malina, who rose to fame in another White House drama,  “The West Wing.”

“No,” he said, “I only get to meet fake Presidents.”

A Marine guard stepped away from her official duties, broke out a big smile and asked for a photo beside Malina.   

The biggest celebrities entered the Grand Foyer at about 8 pm. Between the first celebration and the evening one, news came that Nelson Mandela had died, and Obama’s remarks quickly moved to remembering his personal hero.

“Tonight our thoughts and prayers are with the Mandela family,” he said.  They mourn a moral giant who sought to bring about justice, not only in South Africa but he inspired people around the world to do that. The idea that every human being deserves dignity and the notion that justice shall prevail.”

“Yes!” — an audience member interjected.

“A Supreme Court justice just said that,” the President pointed out.

“Over the last eight days Jews around the world have gathered with friends and family to light the menorah and tell the story of a miracle, of a people who surmounted overwhelming odds, to reclaim their homeland and the right to practice their religion. …We light these candles tonight to remind us we’re still writing the chapters of that story today.”

Obama tied the spirit of Chanukah to the need to remain vigilant in the face of oppression.

“We need to partner with our allies that share those values, including the state of Israel,” Obama said.   “Together with our Israeli friends we’re determined that Iran will not get a nuclear weapon.”

The crowd greeted this with cheers and applause, and the President continued.

“For the first time in a decade we have stopped the progress of Iran’s nuclear program,” he continued. “The toughest of our sanctions will remain in place, that’s good for us, that’s good for Israel.  Over the next months, we’re going to continue our diplomacy, to reach a comprehensive solution. And through it all, as always, our commitment to Israel and its security will remain ironclad and unshakable.”

The President then introduced the brass menorah.  It was rescued from a synagogue destroyed by Nazis in the  former Czechoslovakia.  Surrounded by the ornate Christmas decorations, it looked especially humble.

A rabbi who is also an army chaplain led the Shechechyanu and a Chanuka blessing  that did not include the traditional words for the actual lighting of the candles. A conclave of Orthodox rabbis meeting in an adjacent room had earlier decided on the best way to approach the post-Chanuka candle-lighting.

Two Holocaust survivors joined the President in lighting the candles.  The crowd spontaneously began singing “Maoz Tsur”—Rock of Ages.  The President beamed.

In a lighter mood afterwards, he showed off a turkey-shaped menorah that had been given to him at the afternoon ceremony.  He explained that Chanuka and Thanksgiving won’t coincide for another 70,000 years. 

“We call this a ‘Menurkey,” he said.   

At his Chanukah parties,  President  Bush would stand two hours in an actual receiving line, and each guest got a picture.   In years past, Obama came down for the blessings, said a few remarks and left—ten minutes tops.  The feedback from the crowd that made the pilgrimage-slash-schlep to shake his hand was that this did more harm than good.

“Obama got the message,” said one repeat guest.

This time, after the ceremony, Obama descended the podium and shook hands with guests who crowded toward him from behind a cordon.  He spent a half hour making his way around a semi-circle, disappeared behind some doors for a few minutes, then reappeared and crossed the room, speaking with more guests, shaking more hands.

The political reasons aren’t hard to fathom.  The President needs the Jewish community on his side to back him on his current talks with Iran, and on whatever negotiations he may still attempt between Israel and the Palestinians.

And if his drive to reduce rising inequality in America is his professed rest-of-term agenda, he will find natural allies among the mostly well-heeled Chanuka celebrants who traditionally vote liberal on social justice issues.

Earlier that day I toured the Newseum, which had an exhibit on newspaper coverage of the Freedom Summer, when black and white students went South to register black voters and encountered vicious beatings and racism together. Now, I thought, look who’s President.  And look who is singing “Maoz Tsur” in the White House, just  few feet from Bess Truman's piano.

I suppose nothing in Washington operates in a politics-free zone, but it would be cynical, too cynical, to write that evening off as just politics.   There was true hospitality, true thanksgiving, and a bit of the miraculous.

When my turn came to face Obama amid the crush,  we shook hands and I said, “Thank you, Mr. President.”  And I meant it. I really did.


Rob Eshman is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Tribe Media Corp. Follow him  @foodaism.