|The President shows off his "Menurkey"|
The White House - President Barack Obama on Thursday hosted two different Hanukkah receptions for a total of about 1,000 guests. During the evening party, he paid tribute to Nelson Mandela, extending his condolences to the family of the newly deceased human rights icon and hailing his global influence.
"Tonight our thoughts and prayers are with the Mandela family in South Africa," President Obama told about 500 guests as he stood beside a 19th-century brass Menorah placed on a table in the midst of glowing Christmas trees and bejeweled wreaths.
"They're grieving the loss of a man, a moral giant who embodied the dignity and the courage and the hope, and sought to bring about justice not only in South Africa, but I think to inspire millions of people around the world," President Obama said.
"And he did that, the idea that every single human being ought to be free and that oppression can end and justice can prevail."
"Yes!" called out Supreme Court Associate Justice Elena Kagan, one of three members of the High Court in attendance.
"That was a Supreme Court Justice who said 'yes,'" the President told the crowd, to laughter and applause.
"That's what Nelson Mandela taught us, and it’s that same spirit that brings us here tonight."
Mandela's death at age 95 was announced by South African President Jacob Zuma in the afternoon, shortly after President Obama hosted his first Hanukkah party of the day. The President rapidly made a statement from the Briefing Room, declaring himself "one of the countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life."
First Lady Michelle Obama was by her husband's side for both receptions, wearing a silk suit with a black and gold pattern.
Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were among the evening's guests, as was comic/TV star Larry David, whom the President socialized with last summer during his vacation on Martha's Vineyard, and Houston Rockets player Omri Casspi, the first Israeli-born player in the NBA.
Administration officials, Members of Congress, representatives from the state of Israel, and Jewish community and religious leaders were also packed onto the State Floor.
"We are honored to be joined by one-third of our Supreme Court," President Obama said.
It was the fifth time the First Couple has celebrated Hanukkah at the White House, and their largest events for the holiday. It was also the first time they have hosted two back-to-back Hanukkah receptions.
"We have so many friends to celebrate with we had to do it twice," President Obama joked at both parties.
"Don’t tell them, this is actually my favorite group right here. It’s our own little Hanukkah miracle--the party was supposed to last for one hour and it's lasted for eight," the President told both groups of guests.
In the evening, the President also spoke about Iran, hailing the recently announced P5+1 agreement, and expressing enduring support for Israel.
"For the first time in a decade, we’ve halted the progress of Iran’s nuclear program. And key parts of the program--key parts of the program will be rolled back, even though the toughest of our sanctions remain in place," President Obama said, to applause.
"And that’s good for the world and that's good for Israel. Over the coming months, we’re going to continue our diplomacy with the goal of achieving a comprehensive solution that deals with the threat of Iran’s nuclear weapons once and for all. And through it all, as always, our commitment to Israel and its security will remain iron clad and unshakeable."
At the evening reception, two Holocaust survivors from the former Czechoslovakia were invited to light the candles on the menorah as the President and Mrs. Obama looked on: Margit Meissner, 89, and Martin Weiss, 84. Both now live in Bethesda, Maryland, and are volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
The 19th-century brass menorah was on loan from Prague: "Today, the menorah has been used to celebrate Hanukkah at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Prague," the White House said
It had been donated by Abraham Isaac and his wife Hayyah Ettinger in the 1920s to a prayer hall in the town of Hrušov, which now is part of Ostrava, the Czech Republic’s third largest city, the White House said, and was used continuously until the Nazis burned the prayer hall down in June of 1939. The couple and their three children "were murdered by the Nazis in an unknown place in 1943," the White House said. The menorah was retrieved after the Holocaust.
"Building a future of security and peace is not easy. But the story of Hanukkah, of survivors like Margit and Martin--leaders like Nelson Mandela --remind us that those who came before us overcame even greater obstacles than those that we face," President Obama said.
"So let’s take strength from their struggles and from their sacrifice. Let’s give thanks for miracles large and small. Let’s recommit ourselves to building a future that shines with hope and freedom and peace."
Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, a Lieutenant in the US Navy, said the prayer as Weiss began the candle lighting, and Meissner completed it. The crowd broke into song as the fully lit menorah glowed.
President Obama had one last joke for his guests, holding up a "Menurkey," a menorah in the shape of a turkey, paying tribute to the fact that this year, for the first time since the 1880s, the first day of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving fell on the same day in what has been dubbed "Thanksgivukkah."
Menurkey creator Asher Weintraub, a ten-year-old from New York City, was at the President's afternoon Hanukkah reception, as was Dana Gitell, who coined the term "Thanksgivukkah." Along with her sister Deborah, Gitell has been marketing holiday products around the concept.
"There is only one last piece of business that I need to do," President Obama said, holding the ceramic Menurkey aloft so the smartphone-toting crowd could see it.
"This was prepared for us. Some of you may be aware that Thanksgiving and the first day of Hanukkah converge only every 70,000 years. So presumably, this is the first and the last time that this may be used," President Obama said, to laughter.
"I just wanted to make sure that those of you who were not familiar with the Menurkey--that we had our own here in the White House."
Guests at both receptions were treated to a kosher buffet that included latkes with apple sauce and sour cream, smoked salmon with the traditional sides--capers, lemon, red onions--tiny lamb chops, sliced turkey, salad, and green beans, as well as sweet treats. Two wines from Hagafen Cellars in Napa Valley, California were poured: Hagafen 2011 Napa Valley Merlot and Don Ernesto 2012 Collage Roussanne.
The White House on Thursday released a video that showed the kashering of the kitchen ahead of the receptions. The process was conducted "under the strict rabbinical supervision of Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Lubavitch Center of Washington (Chabad), in cooperation with the Rabbinical Council of Greater Washington," the White House said.
"Enjoy the reception, everybody. Thank you so much. God bless you. God bless America," President Obama said as he concluded his remarks. He moved into the crowd to shake hands, joined by his wife.
The President taped MSNBC show "Hardball" before the evening reception.
Guests were entertained by the U. S. Marine Chamber Orchestra at both the afternoon and evening receptions. Pizmon, the coed Jewish a cappella group of Columbia University, Barnard College, and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America performed in the evening, while Zemer Chai, a choir of 30 singers from the Washington, DC metropolitan area, performed in the afternoon.
A Statue of Liberty Menorah was lit at the President's afternoon reception. Borrowed from the National Museum of American Jewish History, it was cast in 2011 from the original mold created by designer Manfred Anson, who first created the menorah in 1986 to celebrate the centennial of the Statue of Liberty. It features Lady Liberty replicas for each of the candle holders, and a bald eagle on top.
*The transcripts of the President's remarks.
On Friday, the President and First Family will attend the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, which sits behind the White House on the Ellipse.
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