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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

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
  • 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?

  • Issue #2: Seder Leader
  • 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.

  • Issue #3: A Jewish Holy Day
  • 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.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. Tuesday, 6 April 2010 7:39 pm

    This is why I love you. Because you can put into succinct and eloquent words the things that are just floating around in my head. I am SO with you.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 6 April 2010 7:50 pm

      thanks 🙂 Quite a compliment coming from you.

      I sometimes feel as though I am coming from left field. The blogosphere was gleeful with news of the seder and I just kept shaking my head and hoping it would go away.

  2. Tuesday, 6 April 2010 7:47 pm

    Thank you. I never thought of it in that way.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Tuesday, 6 April 2010 7:50 pm

      That’s why I’m here; to provide a new and strange perspective.

  3. Tuesday, 6 April 2010 8:26 pm

    I agree with you! I attended a women’s seder put together by some well-meaning, kind and wonderful women. But it didn’t tell the story of our Exodus. I don’t feel left out of the story, and I don’t necessarily want others to co-opt our experience. Plus (and this may just be me), I think a seder feels incomplete without kids . . . multiple generations . . . .

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Wednesday, 7 April 2010 7:25 am

      Malia and Sasha were there 🙂

      And I’ve had a similar experience at a women’s seder.

  4. Tuesday, 6 April 2010 8:27 pm

    I was torn by all of it, not exactly what I wanted.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Wednesday, 7 April 2010 7:25 am


  5. Dadgifaffe permalink
    Tuesday, 6 April 2010 9:12 pm

    I write this NOT because I procure my coffee from Cafe Britt in Costa Rica. Though I prefer Costa Rican coffee, I have nothing against Maxwell House…except the Hagaddah they have foisted upon American Jewry. Granted, it was a friendly gesture… albeit one that has given the company enviable advertising. My objection is the text. It is the traditional text…and that, I believe, has led to thousands of s’darim going awry. Unless one has studied midrash (this excludes most in our North American Jewish Community), the traditional text spirals out of control. When the number of plagues grows from 10 to 50 to 200 to 250, most people are completely gone (assuming the seder has gotten that far without succumbing to “Let’s eat!”).
    With so many well written and meaningful Hagaddot readily available, what a shame that the Maxwell House freebie got another boost (“If it’s good enough for the President, it’s good enough for me!”)

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Wednesday, 7 April 2010 7:28 am

      Of all the haggadot in the world….

      I didn’t even get started on the haggadah choice. My guess is that it is…tradition. My understanding is that the first seder used supplies from a local Hillel who had Passover kits that they gave to their students. This was most likely the haggadah that was in that kit.

  6. Cat permalink
    Tuesday, 6 April 2010 10:35 pm

    We have always used Haggodot written by friends but I remember my grandfather reading from good old Maxwell house in days of yore.

    While you may not agree, my Catholic father has always taken over the lead role since my grandfather (of blessed memory) passed away. Despite his difference in faith he adores Passover for the message, the meaning and the time if brings our family together. He also elucidates the struggle and text with meaning from his extensive theological upbringing and education. While I have no idea what the POTUS’s lead is like I can;t imagine Pesach without my father at the head of the table.

    As much as I love spending this holiday with my family I was adopted by a Jewish family in DC and felt as though I was missing them this year. Perhaps those in attendance felt the same way about not being with their families.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Wednesday, 7 April 2010 7:34 am

      While I am sure that they might miss their families, they have chosen not to be with them.

      The Seder originated with Jewish staff members on the campaign trail who could not go home, but now some celebrate at the White House by choice. Participants say their ties are practically familial now anyway. “Some of the most challenging experiences of our life we’ve shared together,” Ms. Jarrett said.

      I think that the participation of our non-Jewish friends and family at the seder can enrich the experience for everyone. And it does get complicated… But I do feel that the leader ought to be Jewish if for no other reason that he or she is included in the commandment to tell the next generation about when we were liberated from bondage.

  7. Wednesday, 7 April 2010 1:24 am

    The seder isn’t just food, matzah and crumbs. These goyish-political sedarim are rather oxymorons, like remaining slaves to Pharaoh.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 8 April 2010 9:46 pm

      There is a place for non-Jews at the seder table. There is a place for finding contemporary meaning in the ancient text.

      That being said, this event was clearly not a seder that would fulfill the obligations set out by our Tradition.

  8. Lael permalink
    Wednesday, 7 April 2010 11:51 am

    I never thought of this as having anything to do with ‘belonging ,’ in the larger sense of that meaning, but as friends practicing their religion in their workplace and inviting their co-workers to join in. That’s not an uncommon occurrence in many business. And in a place like Washington where so many people work, but don’t live there, I imagine, not unique. No ‘famous’ or well-known Jews are invited. This is strictly a workplace affair. I really like that, because to me it shows their sincerity. And of course, we don’t know what their family lives are like. Many people lose their religion because of the terrible memories they have of family celebrations. They are *choosing* to make a meaningful experience, which to me is a good thing. I don’t judge this as negative, because I believe they do it with honesty and a shared intention to celebrate the ritual.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 8 April 2010 9:48 pm

      I see nothing wrong with Jews leading a Jewish seder and inviting their non-Jewish co-workers to the table. This is completely different. It was the non-Jews leading the seder and inviting a group of people, including Jewish co-workers, to the table. Furthermore, a seder is not meant to be a workplace affair.

      I do believe that the intentions were good. That doesn’t make it right.

  9. Wednesday, 7 April 2010 2:25 pm

    I take your points to heart, but honestly, I think it’s kind of fabulous that we finally have a president who can relate to the Exodus story. I think of African slaves identifying with Babylonian captives, and the theme of rising from oppression to independence, with all the difficult choices THAT entails. If the president and his staff are finding something meaningful to them in the experience, that’s great. But I don’t know anyone who thinks what the president does or doesn’t do on Pesach has anything to do with actual Jews.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 8 April 2010 9:49 pm

      I agree with much of what you state here. However, I think that there are quite a lot of folks who do think that this seder has something to do with actual Jews. Including those Jews who opted to attend the White House seder in lieu of a Jewish seder.

  10. Shellie Halprin permalink
    Wednesday, 7 April 2010 4:48 pm

    While I do think it’s interesting and somewhat poignant that the President encourages Jews to observe their holidays and traditions and is even enthusiastic about learning about them, it’s tantamount to saying that standing by the edge of the swimming pool makes you a good swimmer. I must say that I am more disturbed by the seders I have attended led by some Jews! I have been to some that treat the holiday as a burden and a joke to be completed and discarded as quickly as possible so they can watch the NCAA finals on TV. And don’t get me started on the messianic Jew I know who hosts a seder every year…. I think I’d rather see the more Jews doing it with reverence and awe. We can get to the non-Jews later.

    • Frume Sarah permalink*
      Thursday, 8 April 2010 9:51 pm

      Good points here, Shel. I’ve been to seders like the ones you have described and they are troubling. And I am certainly far more interested in making meaningful seders a priority in our community than what the non-Jews are up to.

      Just couldn’t let this news story get away without a comment 🙂

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