Last Thursday evening, President Barack Obama lit Hanukkah candles at the White House with four hundred prominent American Jews—and me.
My father, the editor and publisher of Los Angeles’ sole Jewish newspaper, was invited, and planned to take my mother. Then she got sick. Score!
The hotel clock struck 5:40, and we went down 15th Street towards the entryway. We knew we had reached the correct gate because a loud line of two hundred people had formed behind it. We passed three security checks and some maybe-friendly but maybe-vicious guard dogs, and then we were in.
There were Christmas decorations everywhere. Christmas wreaths on every door. Christmas trees in every room. The harmonic pop and buzz of young voices echoed through the first floor. We made our way to the entrance hall, where Pizmon, the first Jewish collegiate a capella group in the county, performed for a gathering crowd.
Upstairs, the entire floor was bathed in light and more Christmas decorations. The guests noshed on latkes and smoked salmon. The kosher lamb chops were the best item on the buffet. “I ate a whole fucking flock of lamb,” one guest was overheard saying.
A gaggle of Jews huddled around Larry David as he told them stories and jokes. Guests—and some Marine guards—asked Joshua Malina (of Scandal fame) for a quick photo. Congressmen Henry Waxman and Brad Sherman laughed with Supreme Court Justices Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer. The US Marine Chamber Orchestra played showstoppers from Broadway hits like Wicked and Chicago. (I learned later they were honoring Jewish composers.)
It was mostly a well-heeled crowd of insiders, donors, and activists. But did it truly reflect Jewish America?
One young woman guests scanned the crowd and passed judgment. “There aren’t any women, “ she said, “or black people. Or guys I want to date.”
Around 8 o’clock, we gathered near a small platform in the Grand Foyer. A brass menorah stood nearby on a podium. The room was packed and sweaty, with bright stage lights illuminating the whole procedure.
And then it happened: the doors swung open, and President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama walked in.
Obama’s opening remarks honored Nelson Mandela, his personal hero and role model. Then he turned to Hanukkah. “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,” he said. “…We light these candles tonight to remind us we’re still writing the chapters of that story today.”
The president then spoke on the recent Iranian deal, and its goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.
“For the first time in a decade we have stopped the progress of Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “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.”
After rounds of applause, a navy chaplain sang out Hanukkah blessings, while two Holocaust survivors lit candles with the President. The crowd started into “Maoz Tsur (Rock of Ages),” a traditional Hanukkah song.
Before Obama wrapped up, he held up a porcelain turkey with candleholders for feathers.
“I understand this will be the last time Hanukkah and Thanksgiving intersect for another 70,000 years. So we had this made. I believe it is called a Menurkey,” he joked.
The crowd clapped. The president and first lady made their way across the threshold of their platform, shaking hands and smiling for photos. My dad shook the president’s hand; I shook Michelle’s. I didn’t know what to say to her, though—I hadn’t prepared anything. So I said, “Thank you so much,” and she went on her way.
Only sixty years ago, another first lady, President Truman’s wife Bess, wouldn’t allow a single Jew inside her home. And now there were 400 of us, filling the halls with prayer and tradition and noise, welcomed in by the country’s first black president and his wife–holiday cheer indeed.