Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The White House Hanukkah Party: A Special Menorah From Prague, Kosher Foods, And A Larger Guest List -- UPDATED With Menu, Guest List

The Festival of Lights...
Last night was the sixth night of the Jewish Festival of Lights, and President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted their first Hanukkah party at the White House. The event spilled between the State Dining Room and the East Room, with about 550 guests from around the country. A Jewish student choir from the University of Maryland performed, and a very special 19th century menorah was loaned to the White House for the traditional candle lighting ceremony.

It was lit by the two young children of a Jewish Naval officer deployed in Iraq, as President Obama and Mrs. Obama looked on. The special koshering of the White House kitchen was overseen by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who heads the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), but most of the food was catered by a local kosher catering company (all meats served were Glatt Kosher, all baked goods were Pas Yisroel, all wines were Mevushal, all foods were prepared Lemihadrin with a Mashgiach Temidi). (Above: President Obama and Mrs. Obama watch as the children light the menorah)

The White House served a buffet including lamb chops, sushi and potato pancakes, all ordered from a kosher catering company.

On the guest list: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the man at the heart of the ongoing health care debate, as well as Sens. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Al Franken, (D-Minn.). Reps. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) were also in attendance. Administration officials David Axelrod, Desiree Rogers, Susan Sher, Tina Tchen, Jack Lew, Peter Orszag, Dan Shapiro, Stuart Levey and Eric Lesser also attended the party.

Other guests included: Jerry Silverman and Kathy Manning of Jewish Federations, Alan Solow chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Jewish Organizations and an early Obama supporter in the campaign, Rabbi Marvin Hier of Wiesenthal Center, Rabbis Steve Weil and Nathan Diament of the Orthodox Union and Rabbi David Saperstein.

The sterling silver menorah was on loan from the Jewish Museum in Prague, at the request of Mrs. Obama, who visited when she was touring Prague's Jewish Town in April, while President Obama was on his first official visit there. The menorah dates from 1783, and is the work of Viennese silversmith Cyril Schillberger. On December 1, Leo Pavlat, director of the Jewish Museum, handed the menorah over to Mary Thompson-Jones, Charge d'Affaires of the Embassy of the United States of America, in a brief ceremony. Pavlat noted that the museum was pleased to loan the menorah to the Obamas, and regarded it as a symbolic connection between the Jewish communities in Moravia and Bohemia and those in the United States. When she was in Prague, Pavlat acted as Mrs. Obama's tour guide during her tour of Jewish historical sites. (Small photo above: Pavlat and Thompson-Jones during the menorah hand off in Prague)

But of course there was controversy...

Like every other social event at the White House lately, tonight's Hanukkah party does not come without a little bit of controversy, thanks to a story that was first published in the Israeli media in November. Without making a formal announcement, earlier in the year the White House decided to trim down the size of the guest list for the Hanukkah party due to budget constraints, and this led to concerns--and many, many news stories--that Jewish issues were being overlooked by the Obama administration. Adding to the worries was the fact that the White House invitation for tonight's party didn't have the word "Hanukkah" on it, but rather just invited guests to a "holiday" party. The guest list has since been expanded from 400 invitees to between 500 and 550, but the White House will not say the exact number of guests expected. The New York Times recaps the holiday controversy here; the most recent story from the Jerusalem Post is here.

*Menorah photo from the Jewish Museum. President and Mrs. Obama by Samantha Appleton/White House

Related: The White House holiday party for television and radio journalists is here. The White House holiday party for print journalists is here. The Holiday party for Congress is here. "Audacious" holiday cookies are here.

On Dec. 11, the first night of Hanukkah, President Obama sent holiday greetings from the White House, in Hebrew and English:

הצהרת הנשיא אובאמה לרגל חג החנוכה

מישל ואנוכי שולחים את מיטב איחולינו לכל מי שחוגג בימים אלה את חג החנוכה ברחבי העולם. סיפור חנוכה של המכבים ושל הנסים שהם חוו מזכירים לנו שאמונה והתמדה הן כוחות עצומים המסוגלים לקיים אותנו בתקופות קשות ולעזור לנו לגבור על מכשולים כנגד כל הסיכויים.

חנוכה הוא העת לא רק לחגוג את אמונת העם היהודי ואת מנהגיו, אלא להעלות על נס את השאיפות המשותפות של בני כל הדתות. בשעה שבני משפחה, חברים ושכנים נאספים יחדיו כדי להדליק את הנרות, מי יתן והלקחים של חנוכה ישמשו השראה לכולנו להודות על החסד שנפל בחלקינו, למצוא מקור אור בתקופות אופל ולפעול יחדיו למען
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