President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama marked the start of Passover this evening with a seder in the Old Family Dining Room at the White House, which began at 6:30 PM and lasted about two hours. The guest list reportedly included Senior Advisers David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, and eighteen others, including family and friends of the Obamas, as well as staff and their family members. Malia and Sasha Obama participated in the ceremonial dinner, too.
In the photo, above, President Obama and guests are reading the Haggadah, which re-tells the story of Jewish enslavement and liberation, and the exodus from Egypt. The text focuses around four key questions being asked--usually by the youngest guests present. President Obama is seated in the center of the table, not at the head, and he is not wearing a yarmulke. No rabbis or other Jewish religious leaders were invited.
After many, many efforts, Lynn Sweet of Daily Flotus managed to get the official menu from the East Wing; because the dinner is considered "private" (despite the photo release above), the White House typically would not make the menu public. Here it is:
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls
Braised Beef Brisket
Sweet Potato-Carrot Tzimmes
Flourless Chocolate Cake
Golden Apricot Cake
Brown Sugar Macaroons
In the photo, the President is dipping his finger in Passover wine; he and his guests seem to be at the part of the Haggadah during which the ten plagues are remembered, and participants are called upon to dip their pinky fingers in the wine, and then drip it onto the dinner plate in front of them (any finger can be used, of course...). The Passover seder can last as long as four hours, and includes all kinds of symbolic food behaviors, such as dipping bitter herbs in salt water, to commemorate the bitterness of slavery, and the tears shed by the Jews while enslaved in Egypt. (Above: Detail of the President dipping)
Tonight's White House seder menu included traditional Jewish dishes, created from family recipes provided by attendees. The Haggadah being used is the Maxwell House Haggadah, a plain-language text that's been in use in America for more than seventy years. This was the second Obama seder in the White House, and it's a tradition that began on the campaign trail. This year's seder was organized in part by Eric Lesser, an assistant to Axelrod.
Sweet also noted that the recipe for the soufflé recipe came from Eric Lesser's mother, and Herbie Ziskend, a campaign staffer now with Vice President Biden's operation, submitted his recipe for the charoses.
President Obama made no formal statement noting Passover. The week-long Passover holiday continues until Monday, April 5. On that date, the President and Mrs. Obama will be hosting the annual White House Easter Egg Roll...
Update, Tuesday morning: David Axelrod tells ABC News that Sasha Obama found the Afikoman. She also, according to Axelrod, was "the winner" in asking the four questions from the Haggadah.
Photo: Pete Souza/White House