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.

The sweet rewards of Rosh Hashanah rituals

The change was subtle but undeniable. A slightly deeper shade of brown; carrots cut lengthwise rather than sliced; some scattered sprigs of rosemary. Any other day of the year, such a discrete rift in recipe might have gone unnoticed. But this was not any other day of the year — this was Rosh Hashanah.

“What’s up with the brisket, Grandma?” my preteen son asked, echoing my suspicions that bubbe’s famous brisket — the eternal pillar of my family’s High Holy Day feasts — had undergone an unprecedented facelift.

“I thought I’d try something a little different this year,” answered my mother (who had recently been possessed by Rachael Ray).

“But I like the old brisket,” said my younger son.

“Me, too!” agreed my daughter.

“Oh, no. Not the brisket!” added the eldest of my grumbling foursome.

“Shh, I’m sure it’s delicious,” I said, trying to mask my own disappointment in the demise of the dish of honor.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that my kids and I didn’t appreciate the wonderful meal my mother had prepared. (We did.) And it’s not that the updated version of bubbe’s famous recipe wasn’t a legitimate improvement over the original. (It was.) It’s just that it didn’t matter whether Ray herself had prepared that brisket — it wasn’t about taste at all.

In fact, prior to that particular evening, my children had scarcely given our traditional Rosh Hashanah brisket a second thought. It was not until it went MIA — and was suddenly replaced with a swankier roast — that my kids came to appreciate its significance in their lives.

Please! You may be thinking. How can you possibly suggest that a brisket could have a significant impact on someone’s life?

But it wasn’t just any old brisket; it was bubbe’s famous brisket. The same unwavering recipe that had accompanied my family’s Jewish New Year for as long as my children could remember — for as long as I could remember. In the predictable presence of bubbe’s brisket on our Rosh Hashanah table, my children found steady ground; a sturdy link between their past, present and future; and a safety net woven out of knowing where they have been and where they are going.

No, I’m not being melodramatic. Oodles of experts believe that it is in the simple repetitions of life — not in the grand black-tie affairs — that our children find the stability and continuity they need to thrive in an unpredictable world. That it is ritual and tradition — not kiddie stress management seminars or pint-sized yoga classes — that build a vital sense of emotional security in our kids.

Of course, if you asked Tevyeh the Milkman of “Fiddler on the Roof” fame, the power of tradition is not breaking news. Yet, in our rocket-paced, technology-based, achievement-driven, media-ridden society, the presence of family rituals in our children’s lives may be more integral to their emotional well-being than ever before.

Fortunately, Jewish life is positively bursting at the seams with ritual opportunity for modern parents: lighting the Chanukah candles, welcoming Elijah to our seder table, eating challah on Shabbat — all these experiences fill our children’s lives with spirituality, security and predictability. Yet the defining rituals of the Jewish New Year play an especially vital role in our children’s overall well-being, as they also carry meaningful symbolism and essential life lessons. What follows are a few of our rich Rosh Hashanah traditions and the ways they strengthen and prepare our children for the coming year — and far beyond.

10 New Traditions for the New Year

To help ensure your family enjoys all the sweet rewards of the Jewish New Year (while simultaneously taking advantage of the bountiful benefits of family rituals), here are some outside-of-the-box, ripe-for-the-picking Rosh Hashanah traditions:

  1. Visit a paint-it-yourself ceramic shop and decorate Kiddush cups, apple plates or honey bowls together.
  2. Put together baskets of apples, honey, raisins and other sweet treats, and deliver them as a family to a hospital or nursing home.
  3. Give the world a birthday present by planting a tree. (You’ll have a whole Rosh Hashanah grove before long!)
  4. Let your kids design your Rosh Hashanah tablecloths, placemats and challah covers using fabric crayons or markers. (Hint: for younger children, try cutting an apple on its side to reveal a star in the middle, dip the fruit in fabric paint and let your little stars stamp away.)
  5. Take a Rosh Hashanah family nature hike. Sit down in a shady spot and have everyone share what he or she appreciates about one another.
  6. Go apple picking. Use your haul to make Rosh Hashanah apple cakes, kugels and other goodies.
  7. Have a shofar-blowing showdown.
  8. Gather family pictures from the past year and work together to create a “year-in-review” collage.
  9. After lighting the Rosh Hashanah candles, join hands and let everyone share hopes and dreams for the coming year.
  10. Leave Hershey Kisses on your children’s pillows every erev Rosh Hashanah along with a note wishing them a sweet New Year.

This article originally appeared in the World Jewish Digest.

Sharon Duke Estroff is an internationally syndicated parenting columnist, award-winning Jewish educator and mother of four. Her book, “Can I Have a Cell Phone for Hanukkah? is now available for preorder on and will be released by Broadway Books this October.

Strangers in the night — a Ghetto Purim

We followed the directions explicitly. At 6:55 p.m. last Saturday night, armed with two floor cushions and a bottle of wine, my husband, David, and I approached a
stranger’s house on a dark Los Feliz street and walked in. The apparent master of the house sat on the stairs in the front entrance with a little boy in blue pajamas.

“Hi. Welcome,” he said. “Straight through this hall to the back yard. You’ll see the tent.”

The first e-mail had been fairly cryptic:

“Reboot LA presents Ghetto Purim…. Ghetto Gourmet is proud to announce a wild Purim feast.”

There was a date and a time listed. Price was $50 per person. Location only indicated the city, with a note at the bottom: “more details to follow once you sign up.”

I’d known of Ghetto Gourmet and had always been intrigued, but this was my first time at one of its events. Jeremy Townsend, a poet, came up with the idea as a gift to his younger brother, who was a restaurant line cook, a notch below sous chef in a professional kitchen. The brother was eager to try out some of the dishes he’d created, so they organized a dinner for a group of strangers they found through Craigslist. They charged each person cost, plus 20 percent.

The brothers held the dinner in their apartment in Oakland — couches were pushed against walls, people sat on floor cushions, and legend says guests even had to share forks — and they called it “ghetto” because it was so informal in nature, though not in ambition. The concept was so successful, however, that it blossomed into a regular roving dinner party — a way for strangers to meet over a good meal.

“You bring people together, you get everybody out of their element, and you get openness and generosity,” Townsend said.

Since that 2004 experiment, Townsend has taken Ghetto Gourmet to other cities, including Chicago, Nashville, Miami and Los Angeles.

Now that they were back in L.A., I was eager to give it a try, especially since they were offering an alternative to the standard Purim night festivities.

The tent was done up with white lights and orange balloons. Low tables were set festively for 45 guests, with silver Mardi Gras beads placed in our wine glasses. A black Ghetto Gourmet flag hung on the back wall of the tent, with its signature white skull wearing a chef’s hat above a crossed spoon and a fork, replacing the traditional skull and crossbones.

We realized immediately that we were the only ones who’d taken seriously the note that dictated dinner would be at 7 p.m. “sharp.” Unfazed, we chose spots and settled onto our cushions. People seeped in, smiling at friends and hugging, and took places around the tables. But not ours.

David and I looked at each other. Did everyone know each other already? This was about to become a junior-high nightmare. Friends were sitting with friends, and no one was sitting with us. At least we weren’t naked.

By 7:30 p.m. we felt like crashers at a stranger’s dinner party. Finally, two people sat down with us. They also appeared to be part of the inner circle, but we made casual chitchat for a bit. Then there was a shift. They got word that there was room for them at their friends’ table. They politely made their exit.
We were alone again and beginning to suspect something had gone awry in the event’s planning. Wasn’t the point to bring strangers together? We were about the only strangers, save maybe one other couple.

I’d recognized the guy when he walked in. Joel Stein, in addition to being a Time magazine contributor and Los Angeles Times columnist, is one of my professional heroes. I didn’t recognize the woman he was with, but assumed she was his wife. They made pleasantries with some people, then sat down at a table across from ours. But for some reason unbeknownst to us, a short while later, the woman came over and shyly asked if we were saving the table, or if they could sit with us.

Joel Stein’s wife asked if they could sit with us.

I took in the moment and quickly invited them to sit. The night was finally getting good. The rest of the guests flowed in and sat down. A group of three friends, and two others, joined our foursome. Someone asked if anyone knew the Purim story, and a blond girl named Rachel offered up her version, which she’d heard on NPR earlier, she said. She explained the symbolism of hamantaschen — how the cookies are shaped like wicked Haman’s three-pointed hat. Joel Stein loved that. “So, it’s a cookie of mockery?” he asked rhetorically.

Finally, someone called us to order, summer-camp style. Jeremy Townsend loudly welcomed the group and instructed us on the two rules of the night. First, give thanks for the blessing of being part of such an evening. Second, hold on to your fork. (Guests don’t have to share forks these days, but the ghetto vibe is still maintained. Thus, no salad or dessert forks here.)

The evening’s co-hosts were next to speak. Writer Jill Soloway and writer/director Julie Hermelin (we were at the latter’s house) represented Reboot L.A., which aims to inspire younger Jews to revitalize community life in a way that resonates for them. They led us in a Shehecheyanu and instructed us on the Purim mitzvah of getting so drunk that you can’t tell the difference between heroic Mordechai and villainous Haman.

As Soloway described it, the melding of Purim with Ghetto Gourmet was inspired by a Reboot summit she attended last year in Park City, Utah. Reboot’s mission is to help activate the next generation of Jews to redefine their religion in their own terms. With the help of a two-year Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation, Soloway and Hermelin recently hired a full-time staff person to coordinate more such events in the future, including a planned larger-scale second-night Passover seder this year at The Echo nightclub.

Between bites of artichoke and lemon crostini, I talked to Todd Krieger, a media and technology consultant who said he’d heard about the night’s event from a friend.

A Persian American Feast

Every Erev Rosh Hashana, our dining room table is set with the requisite items: apples, honey,tongue and beets. Zucchini and black-eyed peas. Mouth-watering sweet pomegranate. Sound a little exotic? To Persian American Jews, this is a yearly reality as families get together to celebrate the Rosh Hashana seder and meal.

While this isn’t Passover, a seder is most definitely included on each night. It consists of eight ritual items, each with a separate blessing and symbolic significance. Just as in Passover, we build up an appetite before the main meal.

The ceremony begins with apples and honey. This is followed by leeks, zucchini (baked squash), black-eyed peas, tongue, beets, dates, and pomegranate. But if eating apples and honey are a worldwide Jewish ritual symbolizing hopes for a sweet new year, then what about the less widely known ritual foods?

Rabbi Michelle Missaghieh of Temple Israel of Hollywood, daughter of a Persian father and Ashkenazi mother, never knew of this ritual until she moved to Los Angeles. Then, while she was in rabbinical school, her Persian friends told her about it, and her interest was stirred.

Missaghieh asked her relatives for a copy of the long blessings traditionally said over each item. Using her fluent knowledge of Hebrew, she translated them word for word.

"It was a play on words," she says. For example, in Hebrew the date or palm tree is called tamar. The blessing said over the date, using the word yitammoo, asks that evildoers be done away with. The root of yitammoo is tam, directly taken from tamar. Hence the use of the date in the seder.

Four other word associations are included in the seder. They are drawn from the Hebrew or Aramaic names of the foods involved, Aramaic being the common language used in ancient times in the Middle East.

Leeks, vegetables of the onion family, are called kartee in Aramaic. In Hebrew karoot means felled, or cut off at the roots. The blessing over the leek asks that ill-wishers be felled.

Zucchini are called karaa in Aramaic; in Hebrew karoah means to tear or shred. The accompanying blessing asks that any bad judgments against us be torn up.

Peas, called ruviah in Aramaic, are eaten after a blessing, asking that our good deeds will multiply. Ruviah itself means numerous, and the Hebrew verb yirboo (to multiply) comes from the root rav.

A blessing praying that our enemies will disappear from view is said over beets, called salka. The similar sounding Hebrew verb salek means to disappear from view.

There is no wordplay associated with pomegranate or apples and honey. The blessing over the pomegranate, a fruit commonly eaten during the autumn season in the Middle East, asks that we be filled with as many good deeds as the pomegranate is filled with seeds. Apples and honey are eaten after a blessing for a good and sweet new year.

Then there is the matter of sheep or cow’s tongue.

"Me and my cousins always fight over tongue in the kitchen," said Alison Roya Breskin, a freshman at San Diego State University who is Persian from her mother’s side. She considers tongue "something cool" about Rosh Hashana. "It’s so good, even my pseudo-vegetarian cousin has to have some," she said.

Tongue, virtually unknown in the American diet, is considered a delicacy in many countries. Like brains or liver in the Middle East, tongue is considered part of a good gourmet meal.

According to Rabbi David Shofet, Persian rabbi of Nessah Cultural Center in Beverly Hills, the ceremonial eating of tongue on Rosh Hashana is symbolic on two levels. The first is the literal symbolism, tongue being from the sheep’s head, that we will be at the head rather than at the tail end during the coming year. This is also a hope that we will be leaders and a prayer for good, strong leadership among the Jewish people.

"We hope that God helps us to improve ourselves spiritually and emotionally," Shofet said. He explained that tongue from the head, the first part of the body, is symbolic of being progressive. The second symbolic meaning is of the ram sacrificed by Abraham after passing a test of faith in almost sacrificing his son, Isaac. The Torah portion containing this story is also read every year in synagogue during Rosh Hashana services.

Shofet said that another ritual food used in seders in Iran is sheep’s lung.

This element, he said, is not included in seders in the United States because lung is not eaten here. When cooked, lung is very light, and was used to symbolize that our sins should be light so we would not be punished or judged harshly by God.

It may seem that the serious contemplation associated with the seder’s ritual foods would result in a Rosh Hashana more akin to the somber mood of Yom Kippur, where fasting and confessing one’s sins take up the entire day.

This isn’t so, said Mohtaram Shadpour, who immigrated from Iran to Southern California before the 1979 Revolution. Shadpour loves the tradition of getting together with her four children and 12 grandchildren. It takes her nearly two days to prepare all the Persian dishes for the Rosh Hashana seder and main meal, but to her it is definitely worth it. "Yom Kippur isn’t happy until it’s over," she said emphatically. "But Rosh Hashana is a happy tradition with delicious food, when the whole family comes together to celebrate."

The tradition dates back thousands of years. Jews have been in Iran for more than 2,600 years, arriving there shortly before the destruction of the First Temple in 586 BCE and the resulting exile of the Jews from Judea to Babylon (modern day Iraq).

As a result of the defeat of the Babylonian empire in 536 BCE by Cyrus, the founder of the first Persian Dynasty, the captivity of the Jews in Babylon was ended. Many Jews returned to Jerusalem, but others chose to relocate from Babylon to the land of their liberator and a community known as Shushan: the same Shushan where the story of Purim took place, where Queen Esther and Mordechai defeated Haman’s evil plan of destroying the Jewish people.

Purim is perhaps the most widely recognized holiday in which Persian Jews figure prominently. But Rosh Hashana, when thousands of Jews in "Irangeles" come together to celebrate with festive seders, singing, and the infamous delicacy of tongue, is a close second.