I was beyond honored to have been invited to the White House on December 9 to celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah (#WHHanukkah) with Jewish movers and shakers from across the country at a party and ceremony hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. (You can read more about the two parties - I was at the later one - here in Jewish Insider, and read my full, napkin-laden report here in the Jewish Journal. And watch this video uploaded by Jason Miller.)
In advance of my departure for DC, I asked my friends: was there anything they wanted to know about the experience? Here are some of those questions and the answers, divided into three categories: Latkes and other food-related questions, POTUS & FLOTUS, and miscellaneous.
Latkes and other food-related questions
How are the latkes? Is the president having apple sauce with his latkes? Sour cream? Sugar? But really, how are the latkes? Does the DC water make it like NY water does for pizza? How many latkes did you think you'd eat and how many did you really eat? I am really curious if there is kosher caviar and good Russian toppings for the latkes.
I'm hearing that some of you are curious about the latkes. The President didn't really eat with us, or open the event to a Q & A , so I don't know his personal preference, but there were latkes. They were small, almost like cocktail latkes, and tasted a little sweeter than expected. I probably ate four of them. Caviar isn't on my radar, so if it was there, I didn't notice it. And because it was a meat meal, there was applesauce, not sour cream. But if it satisfies your Yiddish curiosity, POTUS pronounces "latkes" more like "laat-kissss."
How are the sufganiyot?
Absent. At least I didn't see any. I took what I thought might be a sufganiya, but it turned out to be a mini-baked apple. Very delicious by the way, but not a jelly donut.
Is American-made Sabra hummus served and if so, which flavor?
I think my friend who works for Sabra must have submitted that one. No hummus, American-made or otherwise. But for what it's worth, several Sabra hummus flavors were available at the Jewish Journal holiday party this past week. (See photo at right.)
POTUS & FLOTUS
What about the First Lady? What is Michelle Obama wearing and does she look as fantastic in person as she does on TV? Also, is our president really hot?And who's doing the actual lighting? Is it left to right or right to left? And what's the dreidel sitch there?
In short: FLOTUS was there and gracious, but let POTUS do most of the speaking at the event. It was a thrill to see them up close, but they looked a little tired, honestly - but I also thought about how tired I'd be going to two massive back-to-back Hanukkah parties with loud and opinionated Jews while I tried to run the country, so they're entitled to be a little tired. Rabbi Sid Schwarz, author and rabbi at Adat Shalom in Bethesda, gave a few words of self-introduction, and talked about America's great hospitality to Jews - both of his parents were European refugees. Then he led the assembled in the blessings over the candles while a Holocaust survivor (whose hanukkiyah was being used) lit them with his granddaughter. The actual lighting was done by. You can watch the event in its entirety here - and stick around at the end of that video to watch Jason's photo montage that documents his attempts at getting Presidential selfies...But no dreidels were to be found. At least I didn't find any.
Does Obama know any great Yiddish phrases?
I have no doubt that he's coached on what to say and how to say it. He didn't trot out any Yiddish at our party, but if you'd like I could tell you about that time actor Edward Norton told me (and other extras on his film Keeping the Faith) a Yiddish joke. Not really an answer to the question, sorry. :)
How does it really work--how do you get on the list?! Why does my invitation to this party keep getting lost every year? Do I have some phantom junk mailbox where White House, Oscars, Emmy invites, and my personal invitation to see Hamilton keep going? Is there any other explanation?
No one really knows how it works, and yet, the secret is as it is in so many things. Someone knows someone. I don't know who I knew to merit the invite (although I have suspicions). But someone makes the final decision based on criteria that I am not aware of. The phantom junk mailbox is as good an explanation as any. Although I don't think White House, Oscars, Emmys and Hamilton invites are all distributed by the same person.
What will you be wearing?
I wore a black dress, obviously. Purchased at Versace-Beverly Hills. Oh, sorry - I meant Ross Dress 4 Less. (I'm always getting those two confused.) Shoes were by Payless (a sensible wedge that still somehow hurt my feet). Small diamond earrings that my parents gave me for my 30th birthday. And two pieces of jewelry that belonged to my late mother: my grandmother's cocktail ring that I've written about before and a large necklace that I believe she received from Israeli relatives in the 80s or 90s.
Would love to have teens doing really cool stuff- think Diller Awardees- invited in the future and think that can be good for the Jews.
Agreed! Don't know how to get that done, and there's some recent backlash against the term "good for the Jews," but agree in principle.
Do they need a Jew to work in Portland? Knows a great deal about soul music and Philadelphia sports teams...
Good to know, but I think they must have closed the job fair before I got there.
I dare you to lick a piece of furniture.
Technically, that's not a question. It did make me laugh out loud, though.
The single men, scope for us...
Apparently submitted by Yoda, this command - I regret to say - was a non-starter. There was no way to identify anyone who was single. Sorry.
Have the best time! If Marjan Greenblatt is there tell her I say hi!
Thanks! I did have a good time. And I didn't meet Marjan, but I'm sure she had a great time. #jewishgeographyfail
How do *they* spell it, and what authorities did they consult to best avoid offending anyone?
Their spelling is Hanukkah - I have no idea how they ended up with that, although it probably is the least confusing. But I am sure that whichever authorities they consulted, those luminaries undoubtedly shared the real secret: you can't avoid offending someone, so might as well pick a spelling that seems accessible.
I will give $100 to your favorite tzedakah if you can find an appropriate quotation from Friends to summarize your visit.
Another LOL for the creator of this challenge. I regret to say I started thinking about the "stuck in an ATM vestibule" one, but couldn't create a worthy parody. I was trying to be in the experience. Although I will say that the mini-latkes seemed a little like an appetizer, or an amuse-bouche. Or at least, they were amu-sing. :)
This feels a bit like sending a note for someone to stick in the Kotel. :-)
You are not wrong there. In fact, in the draft of the Journal piece, I had a whole section about Jewy echoes for this process. It was cut from the piece, but am including it here, FYI. :)
The day after, the photos and their comments were proof that it wasn't just me in that room. I’d brought my community with me. And I was reminded that my actions unintentionally had echoed two Jewish traditions.
On her wedding day, a bride is believed to have a more direct prayer connection to God. Traditionally, she collects names from those who are (heaven forbid!) single, or in need of healing, and prays for them under the chuppah. And of course, I was well-familiar with the practice of writing notes on behalf of ourselves and others, and placing them between the sanctified stones of the Western Wall.
Invoking these rituals isn't meant to draw a point-by-point equivalency or to infer any divinity on the part of our governmental leaders. But both are exercises in simultaneous connection between something local and something larger: we are in an experience and also, by speaking their names aloud or writing them down, we also represent the people who cannot be there, but want to be.
Thank you all for being on this journey with me!