Feature

What is Obama's White House Seder?

Obama is the first-ever U.S. president to hold a Passover Seder at the White House. How did the tradition get started?

Confirming a White House tradition that started last year, President Obama will be hosting a Passover Seder on Monday night. Obama, who isn't Jewish, held his first Seder last year, inviting 20 family members and friends to share in the ritual and retell the story of the Jewish exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery. How did Obama decide to make a White House Seder an annual event?

When did Obama attend his first Seder?
On the campaign trail in 2008, according to The New York Times. Three campaign underlings, unable to go home, gathered up some matzo and Manischewitz wine and met in the basement of a Pennsylvania hotel to improvise a Seder. Unexpectedly, then-candidate Barack Obama walked into the room, saying, "Hey, is this the Seder?"

Why was that night so important?
It was a dark point in the campaign, with media coverage focusing on Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. "We were in the desert, so to speak," says Arun Chaudhary, Obama's videographer and one of the staffers who at the Seder. Obama and several close aides and friends, all African-American, overwhelmed the young staffers with questions. After the ritual wrapped up with the traditional, "Next year in Jerusalem!" Obama added, "Next year in the White House."

How was Obama's first White House Seder different?
The participants tried to keep it a low-key affair, inviting only the presidents friends, close staffers, and family. Other parts of the evening were more traditional, with readings from the Haggadah, the religious text of the holiday meal, and Obama's daughters Sasha and Malia posing the four questions traditionally asked by children.

Have other presidents hosted Seders?
No, Obama was the first. In fact, no other president appears to have even attended a Seder while in office. When Obama decided to continue the tradition that began during the campaign by holding a Seder as president last year, it was probably "the first time in history that gefilte fish had been placed on White House dishware," says Eric Lesser, a former baggage handler for Obama's campaign who was one of the three who introduced Obama to the tradition.

Is there a political element to the ritual?
That depends on whom you ask. Last year, the Associated Press said Obama's first Seder was part of a push to reach out to American Jews. But Michael Tomasky in Britain's Guardian newspaper said Obama, who won 78 percent of Jewish votes, hardly needed to pander, and that the Obamas as "our first cosmopolitan first couple" were probably just interested in the tradition.

Is this year's Seder controversial?
Several Jewish commentators have said they appreciated the gesture. But Israel's Haaretz said this year the line, "Next year in Jerusalem" will take on an ironic twist, because of Obama's diplomatic clash with Israel over its plans to expand Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want as capital of their future state. Jonathan Tobin, writing in Commentary, went further, saying that hosting a Seder so soon after insulting and bullying Israel shows a shocking amount of chutzpah on Obama's part.

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