Saturday, April 07, 2012

President Obama Hosts 2012 Passover Seder

Why is this night different from all other nights? President Obama hosts the largest Seder of his Administration...
As Jews everywhere marked the first night of Passover, President Obama hosted the final Seder of his first term in office at 6:30 PM on Good Friday. Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama and daughters Malia and Sasha in the Old Family Dining Room, the President welcomed 16 guests, who were "friends and staff," according to the White House. The Seder was the President's fourth in the White House, and the largest since he began the tradition in 2009, a carryover from the 2008 campaign trail. The President and First Lady were each seated in the center on opposite sides of the table, as can be seen in the photo, above, released by the White House.

"Led by Jewish members of my staff, we’ll retell the story of the Exodus, listen to our youngest guest ask the four questions, and of course, look forward to a good bowl of matzo ball soup," President Obama said of his Seder plans in his first-ever video message for Passover, released on Thursday.

"The story of that first Exodus has also inspired those who are not Jewish with common hopes, and a common sense of obligation. So this is a very special tradition."

In keeping with Seder tradition, there was a pillow placed on each guest's chair, to symbolize the Israelites reclining in freedom after being released from the bondage of slavery in Egypt.

The President did not wear a yarmulke, nor did his nephew Avery Robinson who was seated between the Obama girls (he's the son of Mrs. Obama's brother Craig Robinson, who was not present). The six other male guests all wore kipot, including former White House videographer Arun Chaudhary, who was seated beside the President. He was one of the original aides who joined Mr. Obama's first Seder in 2008 during the Pennsylvania Primary, when the traditional Passover phrase "Next year in Jerusalem" was replaced with "Next year in the White House." (Above: Avery, center, between Malia and Sasha; Mrs. Obama is at left)

Sasha, age ten, would be the "youngest guest" charged with asking the four questions, the answers of which explain the evening's main question: Why is this night different from all other nights? The President and his guests used the Maxwell House Haggadah for the reading, as they have for each previous Seder. Millions of American Jews have used the beloved plain-text version from the coffee company since it was first released in 1932; it underwent a revision in 2011 to remove "outdated" language and gender-biased terms and (God used to be a "King"; now He is a "Monarch").

The Seder menu...
Of course there was matzo ball soup: There were seven dishes served for at the Presidential Seder. These are typically prepared "kosher style" rather than kosher, aides have said. There were two kinds of matzo on the table: A plate of round, whole wheat matzoh was on one end, and a plate of square matzoh was on the other. Bowls of salt water were on the table, part of the Passover ritual. In the photo the White House released, as the guests dipped their fingers into red Passover wine during the reading, on the plate in front of each was a hard boiled egg, or Beitzah, symbolizing the festival sacrifice that was offered in the temple in Jerusalem, and two "shot glasses," one with Haroset (a sweet mixture of nuts and apples, symbolizing the mortar used by Jewish slaves to build the storehouses in Egypt) and one with horseradish, which many Jews use for the Maror (bitter herbs) that symbolizes the harshness of slavery in Ancient Egypt. (Above: The square matzoh, a bowl of salt water, and a guest's plate with hardboiled egg, haroset, and Maror)

The White House chefs cook with family recipes provided by some of the guests, as well as use dessert recipes created by Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses. Last year's menu included Chicken soup with matzoh balls, braised beef brisket, potato kugel, carrot soufflé, matzoh chocolate cake, and Apricot Sponge Cake. Because the Seder was closed to press, the White House did not release an official menu, though Press Office aides did make the effort to drag a large step-ladder into the Old Family Dining Room to take the aerial photo of the celebration. The President's guest list was not released, either. The White House for the first time this year released a Passover recipe; it's for the Apricot Sponge Cake, which Yosses said would be served this year.

Though many Jews really dress up the table for Passover, the Presidential Seder table was very simple. The place settings were atop white linen place mats, and the china was a simple Presidential "house pattern," cream with a gold rim, with the Presidential eagle in the center. Eight tall gold Vermeil candlesticks held lit white tapers, and there were two floral arrangements of ruffled tulips, in variegated orange and yellow, in low gold vases. Two smaller bouquets of the same were on the tall console table behind the Seder table. (Above: One blue china Seder plate, holding the food elements of the Passover ritual, was placed on the table, in front of Mrs. Obama; the round matzo is also visible)

Passover got extra attention from the White House this year: In addition to the President's Passover message and the release of the Seder cake recipe, the White House also hosted a special Passover cooking lesson that was livestreamed, starring Yosses and acclaimed Jewish cooking authority Joan Nathan. Watch the video here; the post includes recipes for Matzoh Chremsel and Pear Haroset. One of Nathan's recipes was also included in the White House Passover Recipe Collection created in 2011, when acclaimed chefs were invited to offer their healthy Seder recipes as part of the Let's Move! campaign.

The President's Passover Message:

The White House on Friday night released the Seder photo at top with the caption "President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host a Passover Seder Dinner for family, staff and friends, in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, April 6, 2012." Click on the photo to enlarge it.

Photo by Pete Souza/White House.

Updated Saturday, April 7.