Friday, December 16, 2011

Chanukah in the White House



About five years ago, when we still lived in America and my husband was a synagogue rabbi with a prominent community profile, we were invited to attend the annual Chanukah celebration at the Governor's mansion in Annapolis.  I remember it especially because it fell on the night of our wedding anniversary.  We went to Annapolis and hobnobbed with politicians and leaders of the Jewish community and later, we enjoyed a more private celebration back in Baltimore.

At the Governor's mansion, where a large silver chanukiah was placed on a central table amidst Christmas decorations, kosher food was provided, in a separate room in the back, apart from the main celebration.  And I remember thinking that the whole thing was farcical. Although Chanukah was the theme, it was an entirely politically motivated evening and I was not impressed. I felt as if the government appropriated a private family celebration, dressed it in politics and paraded it in front of the Jewish community to show how "tolerant" and "ecumenical" they were.

I hadn't thought of that experience until yesterday, when I read this article about how the White House kitchen was kashered for the White House Chanukah party. 

The article was all about making the case that, "...watching the distinctly non-Jewish White House kitchen turn itself upside down, wrap itself up, and scour, boil and disinfect itself for a one-time event was to witness a hosting effort of astonishing generosity and thoughtfulness." [Emphasis mine.]


Clearly, a lot of people agree with that point of view. What a nice thing for the White House to do to show how religious tolerance reigns in the US!  How thoughtful to have a Chanukah party in the White House!  How they honored their guests by making the food kosher so those Jews who care about kashrut could eat comfortably!

In his radio show on December 9, conservative talk show host Michael Savage did not have anything positive to say about the event.  He accused the Obama White House of insulting Jews by having a Chanukah party two weeks too early, for lighting all candles in the chanukiah together and for the impromptu joke Obama made about being happy to kiss and hug everyone there,"except for the rabbis with the whiskers." Savage took issue with the rabbis who acted like court Jews, falling all over themselves to prepare the kitchen and attend the celebration.

I posted the New York Times article to Facebook along with this comment:  Having the American rabbi supervising the kashering of the White House refer to the White House as,"the most powerful house of our day," is incredibly disheartening.

Indeed, it hurts me to hear an Orthodox Jew make that kind of comment.  It hurts me to see that some Jews think this sort of event is a good thing.

Why are there Chanukah parties at the White House or the Governor's mansion in the first place? Because America is a Christian country and there is a common perception is that Chanukah is the Jewish Christmas. So already, I'm uncomfortable because, as lovely as Chanukah is, it's hardly the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar as we observe it today. So Chanukah gets raised to a level of significance it doesn't truly have, davka because it's being celebrated in exile, surrounded by Christmas. These celebrations have little to do with the meaning of Chanukah and everything to do with politics. 

This event struck me as particularly distasteful, given the hostility of the current administration to Israel. It reminds me of the status of Jews in Iran today. Ahmadinejad wants to wipe Israel off the map, but Iranian Jews are protected under Iran's constitution. Obama is often named the most anti-Israel president in US history, but American Jews can light the chanukiah and eat kosher latkes at his party.

From my perspective, the whole thing was nothing but a hollow PR event, farcical and vacuous. It gives me a stomach ache that so many Jews went along with it. Happily! Proudly! How polite and respectful of us they are! The feeling that some Jews sold out for a kosher latke hurts my soul.


But even more troubling than all this is the hostile feedback I get every time I mention something about the perspective of American Jews. I am often told, in a nutshell, "leave American Jews alone." Write about all the lovely little moments in Israel and stop judging us.

What I cannot seem to put across to some, no matter how often and in how many different ways I try, is how genuinely pessimistic I am about the future of the American Jewish community and the dangers that lurk there. It's a classic case of shooting the messenger.  

Like at a simcha, I miss having the whole family together here in the Holy Land, enjoying who we are meant to be.  I worry over those of my fellow Jews who clearly demonstrate, by their speech and their behavior, over and over again, that they are much, much too comfortable in galut. I fear that the price they will have to pay for that misguided loyalty will be great.

Who am I but a very simple Jew?  If it hurts me so much that so many refuse to see what God has asked of us and repeatedly reject the chance to come Home and build up Am Yisrael in Eretz Yisrael, I dare not imagine how devastated Hashem must feel.

4 comments:

Humble wife said...

I was very surprised at the lighting of all the candles at once.

I am not Jewish, but I homeschooled my children and we studied a good deal about the Jewish faith. Until we participate we may never "get" things which is like everything, but we try to understand.

I am deeply saddened not only for the American Jew, but all Americans as we seem to believe that the Republicans or the Democrats are the catch all be all, and this is the problem. It is not about the people of the US any more.

Oh well I came over from 2 blogs, linking to you and thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Jennifer
New Mexico.

Anonymous said...

Shavua tov,

I don't think any religious practices should be sponsored by the U.S. government, because of the constitutional prohibition against mixing church and state. It's not good for any Americans, whether Jewish or not.

In 2002, President Bush lit a chanukeah at the White House, which was the brain-child of Chabad-Lubavitch. The tradition continues till today.

In the 1990's, President Clinton organzied a first-night seder at the WH, for his Jewish staff. Neither he nor Hillary attended. I think that Clinton showed some respect to the Jews by not attending, since he is not Jewish. He didn't attend because he is anti-semetic. The irony, is of course years later, Chelsea married a Jew.

President Obama held 2 sederim at the White House-- 1st and 2nd nights, 3 months after his inauguration.

To get around the law that no US Govt should sponsor,participate,be involved in, repress or condone any religion,Obama's official WH sederim in 2010 and 2011 were officially called Passover dinnerr;, designed to celebrate a holiday with a theme of freedom.

Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel did not attend the 2010 seder. His official excuse was that he wanted to spend seder nights with his family. Unofficial sources said that he thought the White House seder was a farce... and just not a proper thing to do.

According to the articles, the food was not kosher, even though the White House has served kosher meals in the past, after a portion of the WH kitchen was properly kashered (usually by Chabad rabbis) and the eating utensils brand new. Also note that according to the articles, he did not wear a kippah. I think just that alone shows his lack of respect for the occasion.

I believe that Obama panders to anyone that supports him-- politically and/or financially. His "sederim" pandered to the Jews, and him bowing down to the King of Saudi Arabia pandere to the Arabs holding the oil.

Here's a prime example ot Obama pandering to the Jews:

http://www.thegatewaypundit.com/2011/12/obama-celebrates-hanukkah-two-weeks-early-lights-all-the-candles-video/

This Chanukah celebration was held two weeks early, because he was going to Hawaii on vacation

So, the lawyer in me (for 30 years), says that the US Constitution is akin to the Torah... for the reason that both were written as everlasting documents. To insure that they flow with the times, Both are "interpreted" (the Constitution by the judicial and legislative branches of government) and (the Torah by the men of the legislative assemblies what wrote the Talmud).

When you try to take actions that violate these writings, or finding "loop-holes", trouble is just waiting to happen. The more expansive the loop-hole, the more trouble in store.

Obama's views and actions vis-a vis religion are extremely dangerous to all people. By being an advocate of banning prayer or the pledge of allegiance in public schools,,,, to taking the religion out of religious occasions, he can very easily be interpreted as leaning toward preferring the people to worship him and his government.. as a demagogue. Same theory as fascist groups (nazis/italian govt only 60 years ago) and same theory as the Roman and Greek Empires. History is clear that demagoguery leads to destruction,,,, usually self-destruction

American government will not destroy itself because of the the policital views of any president, because he is limted to 8 years in office and always subject to impeachment. The checks and balances by the 3 branches of the U.S. Govt. were designed to insure that no president will become a dictator or monarch,

Other articles of interest:
http://obamafoodorama.blogspot.com/2011/04/obama-passover-seder-2011-menu-guest.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/28/us/politics/28seder.html

Devash said...

You always express my sentiments exactly. Many thanks for your courageous stand.

Anonymous said...

First, the article written on the New York Times blog was written by someone with a distinct, and vaguely disdainful view of Orthodox Judaism. So the article itself and the quote must be considered in that context.

As to Obama, he is no friend to the Jews. But you mistake the Chabad rabbi's kavud. Yes, we are supposed to honor the laws of the land and we give kavod to the Presidency, if not the actual President. This stems from an understanding of Chassidus. However, more to the point, the kavud of preparing kosher food is intended for every single Jewish soul who attended the White House function - even those who would never, under any other circumstances, look to eat kosher food. That fundamental respect and love for every single Jew is what these Chabad rabbis are working so hard for - just as they do every other day of the year in their regular shluchis. This is what we celebrate.

You misunderstand the icker of the kavod - it is an honor for the White House to host a kosher event for American Jews. When just a few decades ago, countries around the world were prohibiting Jews from practicing any aspect of their religion at all, The American White House is preparing a fully kosher meal for our Jews.
If one sees this as a hollow PR event, then one needs to look deeper. Of course President Obama will try to interfere with the holiness of this event - in every which way - because that is who he is. But he cannot take away from the essential holiness of a Jew lighting a light in what would otherwise be a dark room, he cannot take away from the moment that kitchen was kashured and elevated b'kavod the Jew. Not unless you buy into his negativity. Don't.

Your message may very well be valid and there is no doubt whatsoever that it comes from a very deep place of ahavas yisrael. I think what people are saying to you is that you need to find a way to make your message more inspiring and positive. The message is associated with the notion that Jews who have made aliyah are superior to Jews still in America. This is not going to sell. You need to cull through your essential message for the aspects with the greatest emes and the greatest light and people will respond. This message is too important to bear any traces of galus and negativity in it! Leaving galus is not merely a physical exodus - it is first a mental, spiritual, and emotional change. Letting go of the darkness, negativity and sadness (the cloak of the Jew in exile, or as you see it, implicit to the American Jew)and focusing on the light is also an intrinsic aspect of rejecting galus. This requires tremendous effort, one that needs constant practice in America and Israel both.