Just before Pesach, stories about another White House seder began flying around in the press and online world. I received at least two dozen links from well-meaning friends and family.
“Isn’t this wonderful?”
But, I wonder, what is so wonderful about a seder in the White House?
A little background.
Pesach 5668 on the Obama Campaign trail. Three low-level staff members were in Pennsylvania and suddenly found themselves unable to get home for the most widely-celebrated, and one of the most significant, Jewish festivals. Armed with a box of matzah and some Manischewitz wine (concord grape perhaps?), they cobbled together their best attempt of a seder with surprise guest, the candidate, in attendance. “Next year in the White House,” he added.
One year later, the seder was, in fact, held in the White House. And with that second seder, an annual tradition was born.
So what could send a stronger message that we Jews have actually arrived than a Passover seder in the White House?
Except…there isn’t a Jew in the White House.
- Issue #1: A Family-Focused Holiday
- Issue #2: Seder Leader
- Issue #3: A Jewish Holy Day
While on the campaign trail, the compacted schedule necissitated some improvisation for those Jews unable to return home for the chag. With the creation of an annual tradition, these very same folks may very well have the opportunity to spend these holy days with their family. But who in their right mind would turn down an invitation for an intimate dinner at the White House?
The seder leader is typically the head-of-the-household. In this case, the head-of-the-household is President Obama. Who isn’t Jewish. The Haggadah, which in this case was the Maxwell House Haggadah, is not merely a collection of readings. It is a sacred text. One that calls for elucidation. Commentary. Clarity. Most seder leaders highlight different aspects of the text each year and will often spend time wrestling with the text in preparation.
While it is true that we are called upon to make the ancient story new again by finding contemporary relevance, the concept hinges on the pronoun; we. We are commanded to relive our Exodus from bondage. This is our story. I do not take kindly to my holiday being reappropriated by others. (Just as I am troubled by the secularization of the holidays from other faith traditions as evidenced here, here, and here.) The White House seder made a contemporary exercise out of a sacred ritual, hallowed by the generations of my people.
Whenever I receive a flurry of emails that include a story such as the White House seder or the accomplishments of Jews, I sense a subconscious sentiment.
See? We’re OK. We really do belong.