The White House Chanukah Party
The very first White House party took place in 2001, during George W. Bush’s presidency.
President Bush cut short a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008, so he wouldn’t miss the Chanukah party.
The party’s guest list generally includes rabbis, politicians, community leaders, organizational heads, and school and yeshivah deans representing the gamut of the American Jewish community.
The National Menorah was first lit by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. It towers over the National Mall at 30 feet in height.
President Bill Clinton was the first to light a menorah in the Oval Office. That was memorable. Perhaps even more memorable was the ponytail of little Ilana Kattan, which came in contact with the flames and started smoking.
In 2004, the Chanukah party menu included – oops! – some treif delicacies. The next year, Washington came to its senses (halachically, at least) and hired Rabbi Levi Shemtov and his team to kasher its kitchen for the party.
Oops, again! One White House Chanukah invitation from President Bush was illustrated with a cart pulling – you got it – a Christmas tree.
President Obama’s first Chanukah invitation included no mention of Chanukah at all. It may be said that he made up for that by delivering remarks in Hebrew the following year.
A famous photo shows Obama lighting the menorah at the 2005 Chanukah party, although it was officially lit by Rabbi Joshua Skoff of Cleveland, Ohio who invited Bush to join him. Other official menorah lighters included Chaim and Rosa Pearl, parents of slain journalist Daniel Pearl; Yariv Ben-Eliezer, grandson of David Ben-Gurion; the children of a Jewish soldier deployed in Iraq; and Rabbi Larry Bazer, a military chaplain stationed in Afghanistan.
The Jewish Museum lent a century-old menorah for the very first White House Chanukah party. Subsequent menorahs included one presented to President Truman by Ben-Gurion, a Viennese menorah from 1783, a menorah salvaged from a synagogue during Hurricane Katrina, and one made in a displaced persons camp.
Chanukah party menus have included sushi and sushi rolls, potato latkes, lamb chops, pearl onions, shitake mushrooms, and many other options in a tantalizing buffet.
Not all the parties actually take place on Chanukah. During Obama’s presidency, Trump tweeted: “Why was the Hanukah celebration held in the White House two weeks early? @BarackObama wants to vacation in Hawaii in late December. Sad.” Six years later, Trump hosted his first Chanukah party as president…five days before Chanukah, much to the delight of the press.
During the 2013 party, the year that Chanukah coincided with Thanksgiving, President Obama jokingly referred to the lighting of the “Menurkey.” He also got some chuckles when he uttered the clever portmanteau “Thanksgivvikuh.”
The guest list always causes a stir when it is smaller than the previous year’s. But the numbers seem to vary quite a bit- anywhere from 300 to 700. It’s safe to assume that invitees feel special no matter the number. Is it safe to assume that the non-invitees are the ones causing a stir?
This year’s Chanukah party will take place at the White House on Wednesday, December 5. There will actually be two parties according to the Jerusalem Post – to accommodate all the guests.
Trump and controversy go together like Democrats and snowflakes. Or latkes and applesauce. Or…ok, whatever. But Trump’s Chanukah party last year was par for the course, amid much criticism that his guest list was strangely devoid of Democrats.
During one party, the White House allegedly ran out of latkes. This has happened to some of us at the Jewish Echo during Chanukah parties too, but then again, none of us has ever hosted billionaire Sheldon Adelson, who complained about the “shortage” to Senator Mitt Romney.
Lipa Schmeltzer and the Maccabeats have both provided musical entertainment at the White House party. Now, that’s an impressive addition to the frum entertainers’ resumes!