With all the Christmas receptions the White House will host throughout December, at least two were dedicated to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. On Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 President Barack Obama along with First Lady Michelle Obama hosted two Hanukkah receptions both held in the White House's Grand Foyer. The first reception was held in the afternoon for military families, the second in the evening for elected officials, dignitaries, government workers, and Jewish community leaders. Although it was the eighth day of Hanukkah with the holiday ending that evening at both reception two different Hanukkah menorahs were lit with eight candles. Because there was such a high demand the White House decided to make the two Hanukkah receptions with about 500 guests attending each one.
The first reception held in the afternoon had military families for guests and the Thanksgivukkah inventors. The mood was light with the President enjoying marking the holiday with Thanksgivukkah related jokes. The President mentioned in his brief remarks that the combination of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving will only next happen in 70,000 years. Among his Thanksgivukkah jokes that elicited laughter was "So it's safe to say that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event unless there's a really -- a scientific breakthrough that we don't know about."
Some of the honored guests the President singled out in his remarks was Asher Weintraub, the 10-year old from New York City that created the Menurkey, the Turkey shaped Hanukkah menorah and Dana Gitell from Boston "who actually coined the term 'Thanksgivukkah'"
The first full day of Hanukkah Thursday Nov. 28, also coincided with Thanksgiving. American Jews celebrated a rare convergence of two holidays, Hanukkah and American Thanksgiving. This once in a lifetime event has sparked a national frenzy, with the new name Thanksgivukkah attributed to the holiday, with a new lexicon, traditions, and menu devoted to the mash up holiday.
Although the eighth day of Hanukkah was almost finished, President Obama included candle lighting at the both receptions. Speaking at the first reception, President Obama also described the significance of the particular menorah being used, which was designed by Manfred Anson, a Menorah collector and a Holocaust survivor in 1986, and featured nine Statues of Liberties at the base of each of the candles holders honoring the statues 100th anniversary.
The menorah fit perfectly with the first reception's theme of Thanksgivukkah and the military families present at the event, because the Menorah mixed religion and patriotism, as does Thanksgivukkah. The menorahs from both receptions had links to the Holocaust. Obama described the Menorah as "a reminder that our country endures as a beacon of hope and of freedom wherever you come from, whatever your faith."
In keeping with the guests being military families the children of one service member still deployed Afghanistan joined the President in Lighting the Menorah. President Obama, introduced them; "And that beacon stays bright because of families like the one that will join me in lighting the menorah this evening -- the Schmitters. Now, dad, Jake, could not be here because he's deployed in Afghanistan. But we are joined by his wonderful wife Drew, his daughters Lainey and Kylie." Rabbi Amanda Lurer, a lieutenant in the Navy recited a blessing and the prayers.
Concluding, President Obama told the audience; "As the Festival of Lights draws to a close, let's take one last chance to think about all the miracles we've been lucky enough to experience in our own lives. There are small miracles, like the invention of the Menurkey. And then there are big miracles like the chance to be a part of this great country."
The second reception held in the evening had dignitaries, members of Congress; the House and Senate, the Supreme Court, elected and appointed officials, other government workers, and Jewish community leaders as guests. As Obama pointed out some of the high profile guests in his remarks; "We are honored to be joined by one-third of our Supreme Court: Justice Ginsberg Justice Kagan, who is here somewhere -- there she is. And Justice Breyer is here. We've got some outstanding members of Congress, members of my administration with us, including our new Director of Jewish Outreach, Matt Nosanchuk." Additionally, there were "representatives from the State of Israel" at the reception.
If the theme of the first reception was Thanksgivukkah and the intersection of American patriotism and Hanukkah, the second reception's theme was the triumph of freedom over tyranny. The tone and President Obama's remarks were more serious, mentioned the passing of Nelson Mandela, and the highlights of his recent trip where he said he "was proud to reaffirm the alliance between our two great democracies."
Obama also tried to sell the Geneva Interim Accord, on Iran's nuclear weapons as good for Israel's security, bending his message to please his audience. The President declared; "We're testing whether it's possible through diplomacy to achieve that goal, understanding that we have to remain vigilant." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli have been fiercely opposing the deal, which they say does not dismantle their nuclear weapons programs, but lifts sanctions, making it possible for Iran to secretly continue their program. Since there is so much tension between both countries over the Iran issue, President Obama also reaffirmed their special relationship; "And through it all, as always, our commitment to Israel and its security will remain iron clad and unshakeable."
This second reception was less joyful, because it came just hours after the news that former South African President and anti-Apartheid leader Nelson Mandela had died at age 95. Mandela was a special inspiration to President Obama, and the President made sure to include a tribute to Mandela in his remarks.
The President linked Mandela to the Hanukkah message; "Obviously, on a note of seriousness, tonight our thoughts and prayers are with the Mandela family in South Africa. They're grieving the loss of a man, a moral giant who embodied the dignity and the courage and the hope, and sought to bring about justice not only in South Africa, but I think to inspire millions of people around the world. And he did that, the idea that every single human being ought to be free and that oppression can end and justice can prevail."
The menorah's link to Holocaust did not have the happy ending as the one used in the first reception. It was a donation from Abraham and Hayyah Ettinger given to their synagogue in the former Czechoslovakia in 1922, the menorah survived the Holocaust, but not the Ettingers nor their synagogue. As President Obama stated; "Yet even in the face of tragedy, Jewish communities around the world kept alive a light that would not be extinguished -- the hope that freedom would triumph over tyranny."
To honor the Ettingers two Holocaust survivors from the former Czechoslovakia lit the menorah, Margit Meissner and Martin Weiss. Obama expressed "The triumph they represent and the triumph this menorah represents, the progress that it represents, the notion that we can join together here tonight reminds us that we can never take our blessings for granted and that we always need to keep working for peace and the freedom that we seek." This time Rabbi Joshua Sherwin serving as a lieutenant in the United States Navy recited a blessing and the prayers.
President Obama concluded his remarks by bringing together all the topics he discussed and relating them to the Hanukkah message and story; "Building a future of security and peace is not easy. But the story of Hanukkah, of survivors like Margit and Martin -- leaders like Nelson Mandela -- remind us that those who came before us overcame even greater obstacles than those that we face. So let's take strength from their struggles and from their sacrifice. Let's give thanks for miracles large and small. Let's recommit ourselves to building a future that shines with hope and freedom and peace."
The tradition of an annual Hanukkah reception at the White House is relatively new one, President George W. Bush, Obama's predecessor was the one that came up with the idea in 2001. Although formal Presidential recognitions of Hanukkah has been happening since the first Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion presented a menorah to then President Harry S. Truman, who had quickly recognized Israel after it declared independence. However, it was President Jimmy Carter who first participated in candle lighting ceremonies, when he took part in the Hanukkah menorah lighting ceremony on the Ellipse. From then on, Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton all held small ceremonies in either the Oval Office or the Old Executive Building marking the holiday, paving the way for the Bush administration to inaugurate an official candle lighting reception.
President Barack Obama's Remarks at Afternoon Hanukkah Reception, Dec. 5, 2013 -- Video
Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are US, Canadian & Israeli politics.