December 12, 2002
A Chanukah in the ‘People’s House’
The invitation to the White House was completely unexpected. It arrived in a caligraphied envelope, with a Chanukah stamp in the corner and a menorah showing through.
A Chanukah card, I thought, but I was wrong. There was a gold presidential seal at the top of the card and a few lines of black engraving: "President and Mrs. Bush request the pleasure of your company at a Hanukah reception to be held at the White House. Six o'clock. Wednesday, December 6. East Entrance."
Not bad from a man whom most of my friends thought I was crazy to vote for, because he was a member of the "religious right." (Then again, as it turns out, so am I.)
My wife and I spent most of the day speculating as to what the event would be like. How long would it last? Would President Bush's involvement be perfunctory or meaningful?
After all, the most powerful man in the world has better things to do than stand around and eat latkes all night. I have learned that if you don't expect too much in life, you will never be disappointed.
We arrived at the White House gate a little early and were immediately admitted (this president is noted for his punctuality). We walked down a grand hallway.
Coming around the next corner we heard a high school choir singing Chanukah songs next to a large, illuminated antique menorah that came from Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia.
Moving up the stairs, we found ourselves literally in the center of the White House, in a grand foyer. The walls were adorned with portraits of past presidents; a military orchestra was playing festive music, and already 100-200 guests were milling about in their finest party clothes.
To the right, was a grand hall that turned out to be the State Dining Room. This was where the kosher table was set up -- a full bar (the wine was Hagafen) and an assortment of food. The mirror image room to the left was the East Room, which contained the nonkosher -- though not overtly treif -- spread of food.
By this time, a fairly lengthy receiving line was already forming in the East Room, as people waited for a chance to meet the president and first lady. We recognized and chatted with several other Los Angeles residents, including several prominent rabbis of all denominations: Marvin Hier, Abraham Cooper, Steven Weil and Mark Diamond.
When our turn finally came, one of the military ushers formally announced our name and escorted us to the president and first lady. We exchanged cheek kisses between the mutual spouses and chatted for a minute or two both before and after our photo was taken.
We spoke briefly about our children, and if the president didn't actually remember them ("you have a beautiful family, if I recall"), then he certainly pretended to very well. We thanked both the president and first lady for all they were doing for us and for having us to their house.
"This is the people's house," the president replied.
Following this exchange, we had dinner and visited with some of the guests and luminaries in attendance. Ben Stein was there, as were Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.) and Fred Zeidman, chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council. We also had a chance to speak at length with Josh Bolton, deputy White House chief of staff (Jewish), and briefly with Andrew Card, White House chief of staff (not Jewish).
At around 8:30 p.m., after the Bushes finished receiving their guests, they emerged one last time, personally thanked orchestra members, waved a final goodbye to the crowd and ascended the stairs to the private residence. Remarkable, I thought, for a man who reportedly rises every day at 5 a.m.
What came to mind was the Passover refrain Dayenu, it would have been enough. It would have been enough if we had just received the engraved invitation; it would have been enough if several hundred Jews had just taken over the White House for a Chanukah party that night; it would have been enough if they had set up a nonkosher table in the East Room and a kosher table in the State Dining Room.
It would have been enough if the president had just lit the menorah in the private residence with a few friends in attendance (notably, he is the first president ever to have done this -- last year); it would have been enough if the president had just come down and mingled a bit, made a speech and then gone upstairs to relax.
But no, instead, the most powerful man on the planet spent well over two and one-half hours standing on his feet and greeting each and every guest personally.
So my friends, when you count your blessings this Chanukah season take heart in two things: Not only do we Jews have a great friend in the White House, but we have a real mensch there as well.
Dr. Joel Geiderman is co-chair of the emergency medicine department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and a presidential appointee to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council.