Saturday, March 27, 2010

NYT on the Obama White House Seder Tradition

March 26, 2010
Next Year in the White House: A Seder Tradition

WASHINGTON — One evening in April 2008, three low-level staff members from the Obama presidential campaign — a baggage handler, a videographer and an advance man — gathered in the windowless basement of a Pennsylvania hotel for an improvised Passover Seder.

The day had been long, the hour was late, and the young men had not been home in months. So they had cadged some matzo and Manischewitz wine, hoping to create some semblance of the holiday.

Suddenly they heard a familiar voice. “Hey, is this the Seder?” Barack Obama asked, entering the room.

So begins the story of the Obama Seder, now one of the newest, most intimate and least likely of White House traditions. When Passover begins at sunset on Monday evening, Mr. Obama and about 20 others will gather for a ritual that neither the rabbinic sages nor the founding fathers would recognize.

In the Old Family Dining Room, under sparkling chandeliers and portraits of former first ladies, the mostly Jewish and African-American guests will recite prayers and retell the biblical story of slavery and liberation, ending with the traditional declaration “Next year in Jerusalem.” (Never mind the current chill in the administration’s relationship with Israel.)

Top aides like David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett will attend, but so will assistants like 24-year-old Herbie Ziskend. White House chefs will prepare Jewish participants’ family recipes, even rendering chicken fat — better known as schmaltz — for just the right matzo ball flavor.

If last year is any guide, Malia and Sasha Obama will take on the duties of Jewish children, asking four questions about the night’s purpose — along with a few of their own — and scrambling to find matzo hidden in the gleaming antique furniture.

That event was the first presidential Seder, and also probably “the first time in history that gefilte fish had been placed on White House dishware,” said Eric Lesser, the former baggage handler, who organizes each year’s ritual.

As in many Jewish households, the Obama Seder seems to take on new meaning each year, depending on what is happening in the world and in participants’ lives (for this group, the former is often the same as the latter).

The first one took place at the bleakest point of the campaign, the long prelude to the Pennsylvania primary, which was dominated by a furor over Mr. Obama’s former pastor. “We were in the desert, so to speak,” remembered Arun Chaudhary, then and now Mr. Obama’s videographer, who grew up attending Seders with his half-Jewish, half-Indian family.

No one led the proceedings; everyone took turns reading aloud. Mr. Obama had brought Reggie Love, his personal aide, Ms. Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, another close friend, all African-American. Jennifer Psaki, the traveling press secretary, and Samantha Tubman, a press assistant, filtered in. Neither had ever been to a Seder, but they knew the Exodus story, Ms. Psaki from Catholic school and Ms. Tubman from childhood Sundays at black churches.

They peppered the outnumbered Jews at the table with questions, which the young men sometimes struggled to answer. “We’re not exactly crack Hebrew scholars,” said Mr. Lesser, now an assistant to Mr. Axelrod.

Participants remember the evening as a rare moment of calm, an escape from the din of airplanes and rallies. As the tale of the Israelites unfolded, the campaign team half-jokingly identified with their plight — one day, they too would be free. At the close of the Seder, Mr. Obama added his own ending — “Next year in the White House!”

Indeed, the group, with a few additions, has now made the Seder an Executive Mansion tradition. (No one considered inviting prominent rabbis or other Jewish leaders; it is a private event.)

But maintaining the original humble feel has been easier said than done.


Read the entire story HERE.

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