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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

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.)


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.