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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A year later, on the way to a meeting in the White House, “the president shouted, ‘Hey, are we doing the Seder again?’” to Lesser, who by then was working as a special assistant to Obama’s senior political adviser, David Axelrod. “Yeah. Sure,” he yelled back.

That year, the original staffers, plus a few others, and a handful of Obama’s friends and family, initiated the first official White House Seder. Planned by the original trio, it was intended to be “true to the original spirit” of the 2008 Seder, Lesser said, though, he joked, “it was in much nicer surroundings.” Still, the group stuck with the Maxwell House Haggadah, served Manischewitz wine and shmura matzo, and tacked on the line “Next Year in the White House” to the end of the Seder.

The traditions have stuck. The evening’s readings are done, as always, as a round robin. “We do a rotating leader. When you’re with the president, it’s presumptuous to say we lead it, but we start it,” Lesser said. (The “president does the best Pharaoh voice around,” Chaudhary added in an email.)

The Seder service is fairly short and efficient, in deference to the president’s busy schedule. Nevertheless, some additions have been made — most notably by Dr. Eric Whitaker, a personal friend of the Obamas who reads the Emancipation Proclamation aloud nearly every year.

“There are interesting and poignant similarities between the Passover story and the African-American experience, and that’s not lost on the participants,” Lesser explained. The Seder, he noted, is “a moment to reflect on justice and themes of redemption and freedom in biblical, historical and present contexts.”

Despite the addition, the Seder is decidedly nonpolitical, though Chaudhary acknowledged that given its theme of liberation, “in a way, every Passover is a political discussion. Ours is also like that, but no more so.” The evening he said, includes “a bit of argument, a bit of figuring it all out and time to get together.”

For its three originators, it’s also a kind of homecoming. All have moved on to jobs outside of politics. But each Passover, Chaudhary said, “it’s very comforting and very familial and very familiar.”

As in other family Seders, participants have taken on specific roles over the years.

Chaudhary jokingly calls himself the crazy uncle. “I always make a big speech about the Hillel sandwich,” he said. “It was a major breakthrough in Passover technology and predates the Earl of Sandwich.” (The earl is often credited with inventing the sandwich.)


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