My White House Chanuka

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 If you should ever happen to find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room and a military-uniformed classical string ensemble is segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach Concerto to an equally impressive (if considerably less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” you can only be one place: the White House Chanukah Party.

The annual event hosted by President and Mrs. Bush for a few score representatives of the American Jewish community is a tangible expression of the good will the First Couple have demonstrated to a multitude of the nation’s religious groups, Jews among them.  Whether one considers President Bush II’s domestic or foreign policies principled (as I, for the most part, do) or preposterous, the President must be given high points for his reaching out to Americans of faith.

Among the Jewish groups to whom the White House extended invitations to this year’s Chanukah celebration, which took place on December 18, the third day of the holiday, was Agudath Israel of America, and I was honored to attend as one of its representatives.  It was a pleasure to meet and mingle with Jews from other parts of the American Jewish community, an opportunity that doesn’t present itself as often as I’d like.  And it was a privilege to meet, if briefly, President and Mrs. Bush.  I chose to use my moment in their company to offer them my sincere and solemn blessings, thereby disappointing my 13-year-old son, who had wanted me to request a Presidential decree that the school week be reduced to three days.

The event, true to its Jewish nature, was awash in food, all of it under strict Orthodox supervision, produced in a White House kitchen fully “koshered” for the event.  As another observant participant observed to me when I greeted him, “This is an amazing symbol of the malchus shel chesed [government of kindness] that is this great country.”  It was indeed hard to not be impressed.

But the high point of my White House visit was neither the Presidential receiving line nor the array of kosher victuals (not realizing that the catering would be adhering to the strictest standards, I had earlier in the day had the regrettable foresight to stop in a local kosher eatery, and was hardly hungry).

Nor was the best part of the event seeing a dear friend from my yeshiva days for the first time in three decades.  Now an anesthesiologist in the Midwest, he explained that he had received his invitation to the White House gathering as the result of his wife’s “open house” policy for students at a university near their home.  A frequent Shabbat guest of theirs several years ago had eventually gone on to become a White House liaison to the Jewish community, and wanted to show his erstwhile Shabbat hosts that he hadn’t forgotten them.  My friend himself, he reminded me, had spent more than one Shabbat in my own parents’ similarly open home thirty years earlier.

No, the highlight of my trip to Washington took place before I even entered the White House.  I was sitting on a bench outside the East Entrance, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day, watching the line of invitees form, as they waited for the security personnel to open the gates and begin the process of examining identifications and scanning bags.

Sitting there in the descending darkness, I felt a twinge of melancholy at being away from home for even that one night of Chanukah.  I had made the necessary arrangements from the perspective of Jewish religious law; the menorah in my home would be lit by my wife or one of my children on my behalf.  But still I was troubled by being so far from them.

I have always been struck by the inescapable contrast between, on the one hand, the public, potent pageantry and glitter with which the surrounding culture celebrates its winter holiday and the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah, with tiny flames its truest symbol.  And here I was, about to join in a boisterous, bustling celebration – albeit of Chanukah – while the small if potent points of fire created on my behalf were flickering 300 miles away, invisible to me.

It was then that my cellphone clamored for attention.   Aroused from my gloomy reverie, I offered it my ear.

It was my wife.  She and our children were about to light the menorah and thought I might want to be included, if at a distance.  A more accurate thought could not have been had.

And so unfolded the truly transcendent moment of my White House Chanukah, on a park bench outside the grand Presidential residence.  To anyone passing by, it would have looked like nothing more than a balding fellow with a graying beard and a broad smile, animatedly singing into a phone.

© 2006 Rabbi Avi Shafran