Friday, April 10, 2009

The White House Seder: Was It Good for the Jews?

Once again, the Obama White House has made history. And this time, I just do not know how to feel about it.

President Obama hosted a second night seder in the White House tonight. This was the first White House seder attended by a sitting president. The seder was relatively small, and included only about 19 people including the president and his family. Guests included Valerie Jarret, one of Obama's closest advisors; family friend Eric Whitaker; Reggie Love, Obama's personal aide; Melissa Winter, Michelle Obama's deputy chief of staff; White House videographer Arun Chaundhary, along with his family; Eric Lesser, a personal aide to senior advisor David Axelrod, and a number of other advisors. Eric Lesser, 24, led the seder.

The seder meal was "kosher-style," which means that it was not kosher for Passover, but presumably did not contain cheeseburgers, shrimp, pork, or leavened bread.

This seder is big news. By hosting a seder in the White House, Obama has made a point of showing his support for a) the Jewish people, b) his Jewish advisors, and c) diversity in general. After 86 years of a National Christmas Tree, the Obama White House has finally put a spotlight on the best Jewsih traditions and pushed our culture and religion, not our political issues, to the national center stage. The symbolism of the gesture surpasses the symbolism of the seder plate itself.

And yet, I find myself underwhelmed. I am sure that Eric Lesser, a rising star in the Democratic political landscape, did a fantastic job leading the seder. But still and all, this was not the seder I had hoped for.

A national seder is a watershed event. A seder in the White House should match the enormity of the event itself. Every part of the seder should be scrutinized since the seder is meant to represent the entire American Jewish community.

At an absolute minimum, we should all be asking these very important questions about the seder:
  • Who led the seder? Was it a leader in the American Jewish community? Was he or she Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or unaffiliated?

  • Was the seder kosher for Passover? Did someone kasher the White House kitchen? Was the caterer kosher? Would observant Jews actually be able to eat at the national seder?

  • What was on the menu? Did a famous chef come up with an innovative, new take on matzah ball soup? Did the menu incorporate recipes from around the globe?

  • Who asked the four questions? Did the responsibility fall to Sasha? Did she do them in Hebrew? Did she sing them?

  • Who found the afikomen? What sort of prize was the lucky finder able to negotiate with the president? Did the finder get a college scholarship or just a shiny silver dollar?

  • Was Debbie Friedman invited? Well, was she?
And that is just for starters.

Many Jewish leaders felt snubbed that they were not invited to the seder. I can understand their feelings of disappointment, not simply because they were left out of what should have been the social event of the season, but also because the event was NOT the social event of the season.

Imagine if the president decided that instead of a National Christmas Tree, he was simply going to put up a small Charlie Brown tree in the oval office and invite a few close friends over for spiked egg nog. There would be rioting in the streets and Obama would be a one-term president. And all because he simply wanted to make Christmas a small, personal family celebration.

So, the Jewish community is STILL waiting for a National Passover Seder. When this does eventually happen, when a current or future president decides to bequeath a higher level of significance to both Passover and the Jewish people, then, and only then will the Jewish people have truly arrived in this country.

I only hope I make it on the invite list. I want to sit next to Sasha and Malia. I'll even teach them to sing Daiyenu until their parents beg me to stop.


  1. I senrt the Obamas my Bubbe's special Passover macaroon recipe:

    1. Open can.
    2. Serve.
    3. Eat.


  2. If only Lenny Bruce had been alive, he could have asked the questions! ;0) I think it was a good thing overall, and am glad that it finally happened.