Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Chanuka in the White House

Just got back from my whirlwind trip to DC for the President's Chanuka party. So quick it seems like a dream. I'm always amazed and awed that we can step into a metal tube, sit down with a book, a newspaper or just a blow-up neck pillow and emerge in just a few hours on the other side of the country.

I'll post more later, but I gave much thought to my golden moments of conversation with the President. Realizing that I was there not really because of what I've done, but because of my husband's accomplishments, I first said that he regretted that his book tour kept him from attending. I said the name of the new book, and the President lit up and replied, "I've got to get a copy; I want to read that book!" and asked how my husband was. After my son shook his hand, the President told him, "Your father's a good man!" I then added that I wanted to thank him for keeping our nation safe since 9-11. He was most gracious. As was Mrs. Bush, who took my hand in both of hers, and looked me in the eye--not a perfunctory pass, but a pause, as I told her "Thank you Mrs. Bush; I appreciate all you do." She thanked me and said "Happy Chanuka." I remember during the photo that the President had his arm loosely behind my back--and so I (awkwardly, without touching, really,) reached behind his, thinking I might be making a faux pas.

It seemed this time that the guests dressed a bit less formally (I'll admit it: I wore the same outfit I wore last time, but with comfy shoes) and that the buffets laid on tables in several rooms were a bit less lavish than the first Chanuka party I'd attended in 2006. Not that the occasion was diminished by it--but I thought, perhaps incorrectly, that this might be a small acknowledgement of the economic situation.

Rather than the four types of latkes (small veggie pancakes) we enjoyed last visit, this time there was just traditional potato-onion, each the size of a half-dollar. In case you're interested, the rest of the main course buffet included: rolled slices of lox, the most delicious white flaky fish, small riblets from lamb (I was told) with the meat pushed down to one end (no knives were offered, so I supposed we were to eat the meat off by lifting bone to lip), some kind of sliced beef (brisket?), and rolled stuffed slices of white meat turkey. There was a veggie and lettuce salad, and a grilled vegetable tray with olives.
One cannot complain about such a generous spread at the White House. At the dessert tables, there were chocolate truffle balls, small fruit tarts, tiny sufganiot (doughnuts, filled with custard rather than the traditional jelly), a chocolate-frosted white cake, and tiered tray of various cookies. Now you know the entire repast. My memory was of waiters bringing tray after tray to replace depleted tables throughout the 2 1/2 hour event.

The White House was decorated in its Christmas finery. The theme was "a red, white and blue Christmas," though wouldn't that always be de rigeur? In the center of Blue Room was a huge tree with fat ornaments representing each state; in the other halls, and we had free roam of about six large rooms upstairs, were other live trees more modestly attired in bows or round glass balls. Holly garlands were everywhere; red velvet ribbons and holiday trinkets in every nook.

Music was beautifully supplied first by a 20-voice men's acapella choir called Kol Zimra (among whom was popular singer Sam Glaser, a friend of ours) and then by the excellent Marines Orchestra; they each performed every traditional Chanuka piece in the repertoire.

I did think it odd (as I did on my first visit) that for a Chanuka party, the tables were festooned with red tablecloths and small fir or topiary trees with glass ornaments. Though Mr. and Mrs. Bush both wore blue, the rest of the environment was completely in Christmas colors. The only nod to the occasion in the decor was a small silver menorah on a windowsill, and a larger one with all "candles" ablaze (with electric lights) in the oval entry at the top of the stairs. Our friend Sam told us that prior to the party, in a small reception where his group entertained, the President and Mrs. Bush presided over a "menorah lighting" by the grandsons of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister (Clifton Truman Daniel and Yariv Ben-Eliezer), who together lit a menorah given by their grandfather to President Truman. This was clearly symbolic--Chanuka doesn't start until Sunday night.
As you can see, I did bring my camera, though I stupidly left my spare battery behind. I've got some surprises about the evening yet to share...but it's quite late and I've got to get my son to school early...


  1. What? No chest bumping? I'm sure your escort was a complete gentleman. Thanks for sharing the details. You certainly are a gracious guest - not too easily offended and cognizant of good intentions. And let's all cheer sensible shoes! My Oma always said the smile on one's face is more important than the fashion on one's feet. : )

  2. What Miriam said.

    Can't wait to hear the 'surprises'!

  3. My stomach tightens and flip-flops on your behalf reading all of this excitement. I can't WAIT to hear more....<3