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!
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • 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.