How Is the White House Seder Different From All Others?

First Family and Friends Put Own Spin on Passover Tradition

Welcoming Elijah: First Lady Michelle Obama lights candles to begin last year’s White House Seder. She and her husband will host another Seder this year on Monday night.
Official White House Photo Pete Souza
Welcoming Elijah: First Lady Michelle Obama lights candles to begin last year’s White House Seder. She and her husband will host another Seder this year on Monday night.

By Devra Ferst

Published March 21, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
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For a president of the United States, the personal is inevitably political. But there is one annual event at the White House that truly is personal for its current chief resident — or at least as personal as anything can be in the most watched building in the country.

President Obama’s upcoming Passover Seder, scheduled for March 25, will host just 20 or so participants this year — more or less the same core crowd that has been attending it since 2008, when three young staffers began the tradition while on the campaign trail and then-senator Obama surprised them by dropping in.

In many ways, this presidential Seder resembles that of many families, if you can look past portraits of former first ladies adorning the walls, the elegant crystal chandelier hanging over the guests’ heads and the White House china on which the gefilte fish is being served. The Haggadah of choice is Maxwell House, and the Passover fare is traditional, featuring classics like matzo ball soup, brisket and kugel.

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But there are some differences in the ceremony itself — such as the annual reading of the Emancipation Proclamation right before Elijah sneaks in, and the president’s vocal impersonation of Pharaoh. And, of course, the Secret Service always knows where the afikomen is hidden. “When you work in politics, the people you work with are your family,” said Arun Chaudhary, one of the campaign aides who began the now annual tradition, explaining the uniquely personal nature of this Jewish White House event.

It was in 2008, during the rough Pennsylvania primary, that Chaudhary, Eric Lesser and Herbie Ziskend unknowingly began an Obama White House tradition. Disappointed that they wouldn’t be able to return home for Passover, the three aides made plans to meet up at 10 p.m. in a basement conference room in the Sheraton Hotel in Harrisburg. Weaving through cheerleaders from a convention the hotel was hosting, the trio brought their collected Seder items: a burnt bone from the hotel kitchen, Maxwell House Haggadot, shmura matzo squirreled away from Penn Hillel by Lesser’s cousin, and a bottle of Manischewitz wine.

“The spirit of Passover is, if you’re traveling, you do the best you can, and you celebrate it anywhere, under any circumstances,” said Lesser.

Just as they started the Seder, Obama stopped in to join them. “He peppered us with questions, keeping with traditions of a Seder…. We had a great time. It was a very special moment… in the middle of an exhausting campaign,” Lesser explained.

At the end of the Seder, after everyone raised a glass and said “Next year in Jerusalem,” Obama “raised his glass and said ‘Next year in the White House,’” Lesser recalled.


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