It is fascinating—and painfully compromising—to realize how many 20-somethings work in the White House. These are not your typical 24-year-olds of course; they’re preternaturally gifted, seriously ambitious and mostly Harvard graduates who also happen to be extremely attractive (example: Alejandra Campoverdi paid for Harvard by modeling for Maxim, among other esteemed publications). “Obama’s 20-somethings” were the subject of a lengthy but not overly illuminating feature in yesterday’s New York Times Magazine in which we learned the things we expect to hear of such folk: they work long hours, they’re treated like “minicelebrities”, they think Obama is a saint.
But here’s something we didn’t know: In the world of Obama’s 20-somethings, “Friday-night Shabbat dinners have become something of a ritual,” the article said. “A chance to relax and spend a few hours with friends, reflecting on the week.”
Yes, even in the midst of world priorities like universal healthcare, a disastrous oil spill and scary dictators going nuclear, the Obama aides, several of whom are Jewish, take time out for Shabbes dinner.
ERIC LESSER LOOKED out over the containers of Thai carryout, the bottles of wine and the Shabbat candles. “Should we do Shalom Aleichem?” he asked, and the whole table began singing a warbled but hearty version of the song that welcomes Shabbat. In Lesser’s group house of Obama staff assistants, Friday-night Shabbat dinners have become something of a ritual, a chance to relax and spend a few hours with friends, reflecting on the week. Sometimes it’s just the four housemates, sometimes it’s a large group from the campaign trail or the White House, sometimes it’s friends from college and people who happen to be in town.
Once it was even their bosses — “the Bosses Dinner,” they still call it. David Axelrod, Lesser’s boss, was out of town, but others came: Jake Levine’s boss, Carol Browner, the White House coordinator of energy-and-climate policy; her husband and her sister; and Ziskend’s boss, Jared Bernstein, the vice president’s chief economist, along with his wife and their two young kids. Linda Douglass, then the director of communications for the White House office of health reform, was also there.
Around the table on a late September night, the weekend of Yom Kippur, were the four housemates along with Samantha Tubman, a 30-year-old associate director to the social secretary who helps plan nearly every White House event, and Sam Wilson, 27, the deputy director of broadcast media for the White House office of communications. On the campaign trail, Tubman was a press wrangler, one of the most difficult and least glamorous jobs. She had to make sure the press corps was fed and on time, all while dealing with lost luggage and hotel mishaps. Tubman, who is petite and has a quick, engaging smile, was also an older-sister figure to a lot of the young staff members. “Do you remember when we met at a coffee shop in Keene, N.H., when I was still a college student?” Ziskend asked, turning to Tubman.
At the end of every Friday dinner, the tradition is that everyone goes around the table and says something from the past week for which they’re grateful. Over Whole Foods gingerbread and brownies, Lesser looked at his watch and announced, “O.K., we’ve got to do this and then get out of here.” They all had other friends they were trying to see that night.
Tubman started. She talked about her past week in Pittsburgh at the G-20. It was crazy, chaotic and sleepless — a bit like life on the trail, she said, and she was appreciative that she got to know some new colleagues in an intimate, campaignlike way. Lesser talked about going home for Rosh Hashanah and how it was nice to be reminded that “there are people there who I care about and who care about me and who don’t care about the stimulus package in Washington.”