As Jews across America sat down to mark the first night of Passover on Monday, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama welcomed sixteen guests--friends and staff--to the White House on a chilly, wintry evening for their fifth annual seder in the Old Family Dining Room, where it has been held annually since 2009. As always, they dined on a special menu of Passover delights, using family recipes provided by guests. (Above, Mrs. Obama lights a tall taper in a silver candle holder at the beginning of the seder)
President Obama is the first to formally celebrate Passover in the White House, a tradition carried over from the 2008 campaign trail, when three young aides organized an ad-hoc seder in the basement of a hotel during the Pennsylvania primary.
For Monday's seder, the yarmulke-free President wore a dark suit with a silver striped tie, and Mrs. Obama was clad in a black long-sleeved top with a pleated skirt featuring a black and purple geometric print. They were seated in the center of the long, bare wooden table, on opposite sides from each other, surrounded by guests, with no one seated at the head or foot of the table as the seder began at 6:30 PM.
As is tradition, there was an empty chair and an extra place setting of Truman china, white linen, and silver cutlery...just in case Elijah decided to show up.
The seder came on the heels of President Obama's historic trip to Israel, where he spoke about his personal relationship to Passover multiple times. On Monday afternoon, the President issued a Passover statement noting his trip, and reiterating America's "unbreakable bonds" with Israel and his hope for an enduring peace.
"Passover is a celebration of the freedom our ancestors dreamed of, fought for, and ultimately won," President Obama said.
"As my family and I prepare to once again take part in this ancient and powerful tradition, I am hopeful that we can draw upon the best in ourselves to find the promise in the days that lie ahead, meet the challenges that will come, and continuing the hard work of repairing the world."
The First Couple and their guests read from the plain-language Maxwell House Haggadah, another annual Obama custom; it has been beloved in America for more than seventy years. And while the Haggadah reading typically includes the youngest guests asking four central questions that guide the seder, for the first time since 2009 First Daughters Malia, 14, and Sasha, 11 were not at their parents' celebration. They are reportedly abroad on a trip for Spring Break, though the White House has not officially confirmed this. No other children were present, either.
In Israel, Mrs. Sara Netanyahu, wife of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gifted the President with a silver seder plate for Mrs. Obama, and it was used on Monday evening, according to a White House spokesman. It would be placed amidst the two round silver bowls of yellow and buff roses that decorated the table, mirroring the bright wall color of the historic room.
Guests included the President's Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett; former Senior Advisor David Axelrod and his wife Susan Axelrod; the President's Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, Ben Rhodes, who wrote much of the President's centerpiece address to the Israeli people; and Eric Lesser and Arun Chaudhary, two of the three staffers who began the passover tradition, though neither works for their old boss anymore. (Above, Chaudhary is right of the President; Rhodes is second from his left, beside the Axelrods)
Another Presidential flourish for the seder includes a yearly reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. This is typically performed by the President's close Chicago friend Dr. Eric Whitaker, but he was not at the seder this year.
The Passover celebration typically ends with the child guests going on a giddy search for the Afikomen, the broken piece of matzoh that is hidden at the beginning of the seder. "Malia and Sasha, even though they are getting older, they still enjoy it," President Obama told a crowd of thousands in Jerusalem. But since the girls weren't present, that raises the question: Did the First Couple and their guests go hunting through the White House for the Afikomen at the end of the seder? President Obama attaches much significance to it, he said at the Israel State Dinner.
"On a much deeper level," President Obama said, the broken matzoh "speaks to the scope of our human experience--how parts of our lives can be broken while other parts can be elusive; how we can never give up searching for the things that make us whole."
But this year's Afikomen hunt must be left to the imagination, since the Presidential seder is always entirely closed to press. Only official White House photos are released, and those don't even include IDs for the guests.
The menu: Brisket, Kugel, Meringue, Matzoh...
The White House chefs, led by Executive Chef Cris Comerford and Executive Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, use family recipes provided by the guests to create a menu that in the past has been dubbed "kosher style" by White House aides rather than strictly kosher. This year's feast included matzoh ball soup, beef brisket, carrot souffle and noodle kugel, with a meringue with raspberry ganache for dessert. (Above, a detail of the matzoh and floral arrangement, with the Maxwell House Haggadahs atop place settings)
Traditional Passover red wine was served, and a stack of whole wheat matzoh was piled high on a gold-rimmed plate. The eggs, bitter herbs, lamb shank and haroset that are part of the traditional seder were also offered. Chef Comerford typically uses vegetables from Mrs. Obama's Kitchen Garden, but it's been bitterly cold in Washington recently, and on Monday it snowed.
The dinner service is typically buffet style, with guests being served by butlers from a table set up on one side of the dining room. The green and gold-bordered, cream-colored Truman State China has been used each year, thanks to President Harry S. Truman being the first to recognize the nation of Israel.
All is symbolic at the Obama seders.
The White House on Monday also released a video, "President Obama On The Importance Of Passover," that combined photos of the President's previous White House seders with parts of his address to the people of Israel in Jerusalem.
*Photos by Pete Souza/White House