When the invitation to attend the White House Hanukkah Party arrived in my inbox, I suspected one of my more tech-savvy friends was playing a joke. But the invitation was real and what I had at first believed to be a well-played deception turned out to be one of my life’s truly special moments.
On Wednesday, December 17, 2014, the second night of Hanukkah, my wife Mary and I had the great honor of attending the White House reception hosted by President and Mrs. Obama.
It is difficult to describe the experience, which by almost every measure would have, under other circumstances, grated on my nerves or worse: hundreds of people, many of whom are too self-referential for my taste, long lines in the freezing cold to get through security (no TSA precheck at the White House), too much pushing at the buffet table, and only blended whisky at the bar. And yet, having had the experience, I cannot think of any place I would have preferred to be.
Throughout the evening, I kept thinking of my parents, of blessed memory, who surely would have gotten a lot of mileage out of telling people that their son had been invited to the White House. But beyond that, my father, an interior decorator, would have treasured the pure aesthetic of the historic White House rooms, bedecked in full holiday splendor. And my mom, from whom I inherited a love of logistics, orchestration, and attention to detail (to say nothing of American politics) would have marveled at the organization of the evening. These people know how to throw a party! From the honor guards to the a cappella choirs, from the catering staff to the folks handling the coat check, no evidence of government inefficiency was on view that night.
The ceremony itself moved me in ways I did not expect. Perhaps it was the confluence of events from earlier that day. To be at the White House anytime is a gift. To be at the White House Hanukkah Party with the President, on the very day he announced the release of Alan Gross after five years in Cuban captivity, was an emotional experience beyond words.
What touched me about the ceremony, however, went far beyond the news. The President, accompanied by a radiant First Lady, spoke briefly about the Hanukkah story before introducing Rabbi Angela Buchdahl to light the candles. Rabbi Buchdahl, whose work I have long admired, was accompanied by Dr. Adam Levine, a physician, recently returned from treating Ebola patients in Liberia, as well as Ataklit Tesfaye, a 23-year-old Israeli immigrant from Ethiopia. As the first Asian-American rabbi, Buchdahl alluded to what many of us were thinking. Among the nissim (miracles) to be celebrated this Hanukkah, surely a United States in which an African-American President hosts a strictly kosher reception for Jews from across the ideological spectrum, featuring a candle-lighting ceremony with an Asian-American woman rabbi, a young Israeli from Ethiopia, and a life-saving doctor from Rhode Island, is at the top of anyone’s list. I am not embarrassed to confess I fought back tears as we chanted the brahot (blessings). We were, at least for that brief moment, one enormously diverse, yet wholly (holy?) unified kehilla (community).
Rest assured however, the evening was not only about peak spiritual moments. There was, at least for me, more than a bit of star-gazing as well. Though I missed Gwyneth Paltrow, who was there but apparently didn’t think it was important enough to meet the Spertus President, I had several encounters worth sharing.
Because Mary and I were fortunate to be very close to the podium, I was able to shake hands with the President during his quick foray along the “rope line.” In a comment I rehearsed for days leading up to the event, I told him that we love him in Chicago. (I know it’s not universally true, but I didn’t think it was my place to ruin the festive mood.) He responded by saying that I should “tell all the folks back home I say hi.” When the President tells you to do something, you don’t mess around. So, Chicago, the President says, “Hi.”
I met Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Chair of the Democratic National Committee. She was at the White House event and hosted an “after party” at the Library of Congress. We found her to be gracious and extremely personable, and though clearly a politician, she impressed us with her warmth.
Then, thanks to Mary, I met one of my favorite actresses — Emmy Rossum, Fiona on Shameless and Christine in Phantom of the Opera. For years I have been more than a bit gaga over her. Though I was talking to Emmy at the dessert table, it wasn’t until Mary mouthed F-I-O-N-A that I realized who she was. I’m sure I’m not the first aging Jewish Studies professor to fall apart in her presence. To her credit, she didn’t seem to mind. She was lovely and appeared to be quite amused by my tongue-tied blathering.
I also saw several friends of Spertus, including Spertus Alumnus Rabbi Capers Funnye, a cousin of Michelle Obama’s.
As the evening drew to a close, I found myself — the guy who usually can’t wait to leave a party — wishing I could hang out longer. Perhaps it was the headiness of the evening. (Or perhaps it was that this year’s White House Hanukkah Party fell on the eve of our 37th wedding anniversary, and with all the excitement I forgot to pick up a card. Somehow it didn’t seem to bother Mrs. Lewis this year—one more Hanukkah miracle to celebrate. Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, Mrs. Obama.)
In the days since my evening at the Obamas, I have found myself returning to one thought above all else. (Okay, if I’m being honest, two thoughts. But you don’t really need to hear about how Emmy Rossum is even more gorgeous in person than on television.) The story of Hanukkah, once you get past the rabbinic mythos about long-lasting oil and the like, is at its heart, a story about pride in identity. The real enemies of the Maccabees were not the Greeks, but the Hellenized Jews who sought desperately to blend in, to become like the dominant society around them. They shunned their particularism and the distinctive religious practices, which in many ways served to separate them from others.
This is a story that has repeated itself throughout history, even in America. That night at the White House the room was filled with the children and grandchildren of Jews who came to this country believing the best way to Americanize was to distance themselves from anything “too Jewish.” They changed their names, cried shah shtill, and ceased many traditional practices in order to become part of the larger American melting pot. Today, however, we know a different way. Today in contemporary America, even amidst the Christmas trees and ornamentation of the White House, proud Jews, engaged Jews, committed Jews, Jews who reject the proposition that to be fully American is to reject Jewishness, gather in the “People’s House” every year at the invitation of presidents from both political parties, to celebrate with pride and joy. Today in the United States the Maccabees have won again.
About the Evening Reception
At the evening reception, guests were welcomed by the sounds of the Penn Shabbatones, a Jewish a cappella group from the University of Pennsylvania.
The President and Mrs. Obama joined guests in the Grand Foyer for remarks and the candle lighting.
In his remarks, President Obama introduced the two candlelighters: Dr. Adam Levine, recently returned from helping to fight Ebola in Liberia, and Atakalit Tesfaye, a graduate of the Yemin Orde Jewish youth village near Haifa. Yemin Orde was founded in 1953 to provide a safe haven to Holocaust orphans and children who immigrated to Israel in the 1950s. Today, Yemin Orde is home to over 400 children from around the world, including Ethiopia, Iran, India, Yemen, Eastern Europe, and South America.
The President said, “Yemin Orde is just one village. But the story of Hanukkah teaches us that there’s no such thing as a futile act of courage, or a small act of faith. One doctor can save a life. One school can help a child. That life, that child may change a village. One person can be the spark that changes the world.”
The menorah was made by the children of Yemin Orde. The houses that hold the candles represent the diverse Jewish ancestry of Yemin Orde’s residents. The shamash is made of iron and shaped like a cherub from the Tabernacle. The base of the menorah bears an inscription from Isaiah 60:4: “Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together….”
Photo top left: Michael Obama, Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, and President Obama, courtesy the Washington Post | Photo top right, Dr. Adam Levine and Atakalit Tesfaye, courtesy of AP. | Photo with chandelier courtesy of the White House.
All other photos courtesy Hal and Mary Lewis and their cell phones: Hal and Mary Lewis at the White House | Hal Lewis with Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz | Hal with actress Emmy Rossum | Hal with Rabbi Capers Funnye.