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So, does the president really get into the Seders?
He does. He’s a big fan of the story as a story of redemption.
Does he get into singing “Dayenu”?
Yeah, he likes “Dayenu.” He likes the plagues too; everybody likes the plagues. He’s a very good speaker, and he likes the parts where he gets to use his Pharaoh voice. The first time he did it, I called him out on it. I said, “Come on, the rest of us aren’t trained orators; you can’t just roll over us using your Pharaoh voice.” There really is a marked difference at a Seder when six people are not Barack Obama and the seventh person is. You notice that someone’s a little better with his diction.
Is the Seder potluck?
No, people bring in their own recipes, but they’re done by the White House chefs. It’s the White House, so it’s hard to bring in food. We had macaroons get checked by Secret Service at the door, and so the president had to intervene.
How about you? Your mother’s Jewish, so did you grow up with Passover Seders?
Yes, but that was the extent of it — Seder, Rosh Hashanah, Hanukkah; we were very secular. My family on my mother’s side were probably Forward subscribers in the 1920s.
So, what’s your take on the concept that some people have proposed — that Obama’s our first Jewish president?
Well, I find the president’s view of Judaism very familiar and comforting; it’s not the play-acting that you get from a lot of politicians. He talked a lot about the Jewish books he’d read. He talked about Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, which helped his understanding of what it means to be Jewish. As for Roth, I’ve only been star-struck two times. Meeting actors? I couldn’t care less. Sports? Same thing. The only two people I was star-struck by were Gorbachev and Philip Roth. I was so star-struck I could not go up to Roth and say hello.