Why are there so many Christmas trees at the White House Hanukkah party?
I have spent exactly zero days as a professional party planner, but even I know that if I’m going to host a Hanukkah party, it probably shouldn’t be in a room that looks like Santa’s workshop.
Apparently the folks who work for the White House Social Secretary did not get the memo. Because in every photograph I could find of Monday night’s Hanukkah reception, the lovely menorah fashioned from wood harvested during a 19th-century renovation of the building was dwarfed by a massive Christmas tree.
For Jewish journalists, the annual White House Hanukkah party is something of our Super Bowl. But as I hunted for the right image to illustrate the event in the Forward’s morning newsletter, every one looked like it was taken from the set of a Hallmark holiday movie — and not the one called Hanukkah on Rye. There was so much garland – and I’m not talking about Merrick, our Jewish attorney general, who was in attendance. An audience crowded with yarmulkes looked like it had been dropped into a Yuletide festival.
I know what you’re thinking. Monday’s Hanukkah fest is only one of many holiday parties at the White House, the Bidens celebrate Christmas, two-thirds of American adults identify as Christian. But couldn’t they have cleared a single foyer of frankincense? I thought the whole point of the White House Hanukkah party was to show people that the White House cares about Hanukkah. Why mix menorahs with mistletoe?
You don’t see Halloween costumes at the president’s Thanksgiving turkey pardon. There’s not an inflatable bottle of Manischewitz wine at the Easter egg roll on the South Lawn. Our festival of lights lasts eight days, and I’m only asking for one where the menorah would not be upstaged.
I reached out to discuss this with Shelley Greenspan, the White House’s Jewish liaison, who coincidentally met her husband at an office holiday party because they were both wearing Hanukkah sweaters. She passed my inquiry on to a colleague, who has not yet gotten back to me about it.
Let me be clear: I’m not blaming the Bidens. Photos from White House Hanukkah parties for the past two decades show a consistent theme: An interfaith cacophony of mazels and myrrh, dreidels and ornaments, tidings and oy.
George W. Bush hosted the first official White House Hanukkah party in 2001 — 50 years after Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, gifted a menorah to President Harry S. Truman. (A photo from the event shows no wreaths in the background. Granted, it took place in May.)
President Jimmy Carter was actually the first president to light a menorah in the White House, in 1979. Four years later, President Ronald Reagan spoke at a Hanukkah party at the JCC in Rockville, Maryland, and in 1989, President George H.W. Bush famously played dreidel at a news conference.
President Bill Clinton hosted a menorah-lighting ceremony in the Oval Office for about a dozen kids in 1993; the event made news because a 6-year-old girl’s ponytail briefly caught fire when she stood too close to the candles. The U.S. postal service also issued its first Hanukkah stamp during the Clinton administration, as well as one commemorating Gone with the Wind (which has nothing to do with Hanukkah, but I nonetheless found interesting).
We’ve all been to an office party or a doctor’s waiting room or Target and seen that one tiny menorah cowering in the corner amidst a tidal wave of tinsel. When I worked in a skyscraper in downtown Atlanta, the lobby’s Christmas tree was so tall, it could have auditioned to be in the next Godzilla movie.
Look, I like Christmas just as much as the next Jew. Sure, I married a minister’s daughter out of love, but also, maybe just a little, for the sheer joy of seeing what I assume is the only fireplace stocking in the known universe to have the name Benyamin embroidered on it.
And yet here I am, with a West Wing hangover. Half-drunk cup of eggnog in one hand and a kosher gingerbread cookie in the other.
A colleague said I’m being a grinch. He said we live in a Christian nation. But generations of immigrants came to Ellis Island for the express intent of living in a country free of any official religion.
Don’t get me wrong: There was plenty to like about Monday night’s shindig. The Marine Band played Hanukkah tunes while Jewish cabinet members, celebrities, and even a TikTok star mingled among the crowd. There was lox and latkes, both potato and the more exotic zucchini.
And Biden spoke out forcefully about the rise in antisemitism. “Silence is complicity,” he told the crowd, which included a Holocaust survivor and actress Beanie Feldstein.
Imagine how much more powerful the pictures would have been if they’d just hidden the holly.