Israeli President Brings the Cheer to White House Hanukkah Party
(JTA) — Reuven Rivlin toddles up the White House driveway. He is grinning as he shouts in Hebrew to a phalanx of local Israeli reporters shivering in the December chill: “If you must live in a Diaspora, live in this one!”
Washington’s Hanukkah week has found an unlikely Santa Claus in Israel’s president: His workshop, where the real work is done, is far away in Jerusalem, but here he comes to the Diaspora, spreading cheer and goodwill.
Look at Rivlin on Wednesday, jaw dropped in joy, lighting the menorah at the White House Hanukkah party. Listen to him lavish praise on the American president in terms so affectionate they would cleave the tongue of his prime minister. Watch him nod in approval as a fiery rabbi from St. Louis excoriates policies embraced by Rivlin.
Rivlin’s light-footed jauntiness is a relief in a city where the week of Hanukkah has become a monster. Holiday parties in Washington have become the ex who makes you crazy: You’d rather not go to his stupid party, but wait, he didn’t invite you?
President George W. Bush launched the White House Hanukkah party tradition. Now it prompts an annual barrage of calls pleading for entry that have quickly aged a succession of once-youthful Jewish liaisons. Like clockwork, the Bush Jewish outreach staffers would “regretfully” quit right after their first Hanukkah party, preferring the joys of, say, Social Security reform to ever having to deal again with angry snubbed donors.
President Barack Obama has expanded the celebrations to two yearly Hanukkah parties, both held this year on Wednesday. His Jewish liaisons are fleeing less frequently, but ask any of them about the experience of fielding calls in the weeks ahead of the party, and watch their jaws and God knows what else clenching.
And it’s not just the White House. There’s the menorah lighting Sunday on the Ellipse in front of the White House, organized by American Friends of Lubavitch, where each year a lucky official gets to squeeze into the cab of a cherry picker with the Rabbis Shemtov — father Abraham and son Levi — and light the huge lamps. Most years, it’s the most senior Jewish official in the government, although this year the honors went to a Roman Catholic, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
Then there’s the party Wednesday evening at the Library of Congress, organized by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla. And the Thursday party at the Israeli Embassy. And the Indian Embassy’s Hanukkah bash, which will be held this year after the actual holiday, on Tuesday.
Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign also had a party, in between the two White House parties, on Wednesday. There’s the party dubbed “Latkes and Vodkas” held by Bluelight Strategies, the lead public relations outfit handling Jewish communal accounts. (This year’s theme, emblazoned on blue baseball caps: “Let’s make Hanukkah great again!,” a jab at Donald Trump’s campaign slogan.)
Then there is the heavy, heavy messaging. This year, nary an opportunity was missed to reference the plight of Syrian refugees on this holiday of religious freedom, an ancient festival that has somehow morphed into an American value.
“And yet we are mindful, even as we gather here tonight, that while the light of freedom burns brightly for us, and our generation, it flickers for others – refugees fleeing religious intolerance and oppression, people targeted for their faith, people whose faith is perverted by others,” McDonough said before being transported to the chilly heights of the massive menorah.
“That’s our challenge during this Hanukkah season,” Obama said at the second White House party. “Whether it’s standing up for the dignity of refugees, standing up against anti-Semitism — or any kind of bigotry or discrimination leveled at any religion — or standing with our ally the State of Israel, we can raise our voices, each of us, for the security and dignity of every human being. “
And Obama, at the afternoon party: “It’s no accident that when we’re called out to speak on behalf of refugees or against religious persecution, American Jews remember what it was like to be a stranger and are leading the way.”
Taken one at a time, each party is packed with good food and camaraderie. Collectively, with the same folks attending each, the experience becomes otherworldly, like being stuck in an endless loop of encomiums to religious freedom. It’s like Groundhog Day, but without the fun parts.
And then comes President Ruvi. The merry scion of one of Israel’s oldest families, the president who hopes to transform a ceremonial office into a nexus of reconciliation among Israel’s warring tribes, gets what this minor holiday is about: having unironic, even childish fun.
“This is my 76th Hanukkah,” he tells the White House crowd, to laughter. “I remember nearly all of them. I love all of them.”
He adds: “They told me that the latkes and the donuts would be worth coming all the way.”
He lavishes praise on Obama, likening him to the shamash candle – “not a civil servant, it is the leader.” He extols Obama’s “strong and clear moral leadership.” Talking to Israeli reporters in Hebrew, he uses two words for friend to describe the president — the more common one, “haver,” the other from the root for shepherd, “reah.”
The contrast is sharp with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who tends to praise the “relationship” with the United States more than he does the man who steers it. The difference is not lost on Obama, who relaxes and smiles as he listens. Nor is it lost on the Jews at the party, many of whom twice helped lead Obama to resounding victories among Jewish voters, who whoop with cheers.
Rivlin’s joy is evident throughout the long preamble to the blessing delivered by Rabbi Susan Talve from the Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis. Rivlin nods cheerfully through references to the Black Lives Matter movement – Talve was a leader of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri – justice for Palestinians, compassion for the Syrian refugees and even a pointed reference to religious pluralism in Israel, which Rivlin has resisted.
“I stand with my sisters who lit these lights at the Kotel!” she cries out, referring to the Women at the Wall protest group.
Then Santa Ruvi steps forward and joins in the prayer, smiling as Talve shouts out “veimahot” — “and the mothers ” — during the blessing.
When it’s time, he lights the candle and belts out “Maoz Tzur.”