White House Seder

White House Seder

At sundown on Monday April 18th, the Obama family and friends will celebrate the third White House Seder, the Passover holiday dinner that commemorates freedom. There are ceremonial aspects to the meal, including four glasses of wine, but basically it’s a feast, a feature of any holiday worth observing.

There is one aspect that sets the Seder apart: storytelling. Guests read the Exodus story from slim booklets called Haggadahs which incorporate Biblical and non-canonical episodes, commentary, prayers, folktales, and folksongs. There are many versions of the story, like you get in any group of Jews; since parents are instructed to tell their kids the ancient story as if it personally happened to them, that’s entirely appropriate. Two new stories have emerged, one about the Obama Seder itself, and perhaps these should be added to American Passover lore:

1. The White House Seder originated on the campaign trail, before Barack Obama was elected President. In April 2008, during the Pennsylvania primary, Obama campaign staffers Eric Lesser, Arun Chaudhary and Herbie Ziskend, unable to spend Passover with their families, put together a makeshift Seder in the basement of the Harrisburg Sheraton. Senator Obama asked to join them, and the traditional toast “Next year in Jerusalem!” was followed by “And next Year in the White House!”

2. The White House Seder uses the Maxwell House Haggadah, an American tradition since 1932. Maxwell House Coffee was never under Jewish ownership, but in the Twenties the firm wanted to increase coffee sales in New York City, which then (as now) had a large Jewish population. The Joseph Jacobs ad agency suggested printing a Haggadah with English translations and transliterations of Hebrew and Aramaic texts, and it has never been updated until this year. No word on which version will be used at the 2011 White House Seder, but we think it will be the new politically correct one. 

The President’s 2011 Passover message refers to  the spirit of freedom sweeping the Middle East and North Africa today. Read it here, and happy holidays.


Top image (“White House Seder Matzoh Hunt”) by Mike Licht. Download a copy here. Creative Commons license; credit Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com

Comments are welcome if they are on-topic, substantive, concise, and not boring or obscene. Comments may be edited for clarity and length.

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