If any word could describe the scene from the East Room of the White House on Dec. 14, the site of the final two Chanukah parties hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, it would be irony.
Unless you paid close attention to the fact that there was a silver menorah being lit at the front of the room for the second ceremony in the evening, or the fact that some of the 550-plus guests at each ceremony were wearing kippot, the Christmas trees and lights adorning the room may have given you a different impression.
Obama appeared to be in good spirits, referring to the infamous “Thanksgivvikuh” holiday confluence of 2013, when the Obamas lit a turkey-shaped menorah, and noting that the annual White House event gives them a lot of nachas. He even managed to recast his presidency as the Chanukah story of the day’s worth of oil that lasted for eight.
“You know, at the beginning of my presidency, some critics thought it would last for only a year, but — miracle of miracles it has lasted eight years,” he said to raucous applause.
But Obama also noted the many accomplishments of American Jews, including the Jewish Supreme Court justices. He said this as recent court nominee Merrick Garland stood near the back of the room With Garland’s nomination all but dead, Obama said the Garland will “continue to serve our country with distinction as the chief judge on the D.C. circuit.”
Both ceremonies featured relatives of important Jewish figures who died this year. At the first event, Obama compared Elie Wiesel’s survival in Nazi concentration camps to the story of Chanukah and the larger concept of overcoming adversity.
“Through centuries of exile and persecution, and even the genocide of families like the Wiesels’ endured, the Chanukah candles have been kindled,” he said. “Each wick an answer to the wicked. Each light a signal to the world that yours is an inextinguishable faith.”
During the second ceremony — Obama has run two parties in recent years due to demand; each one on Wednesday drew 550 people — he recalled former Israeli President and Prime Minister Shimon Peres.
Obama also noted the contributions Jews have made in fighting for the rights of other marginalized groups.
“It’s why Jews marched in Selma, why they mobilized after Stonewall, why synagogues have opened their doors to refugees, why Jewish leaders have spoken out against all forms of hatred,” he said.
Both ceremonies ended with Chanukah blessings — minus God’s name because the holiday won’t actually begin until Dec. 24 — and the traditional song “Ma’oz Tzur.” The first ceremony included a bit of gospel flavor with the singing of “This Little Light of Mine.”
Obama’s final menorah lighting followed one of the bitterest presidential campaigns in American history. Obama’s words Wednesday, while consoling, may not have been enough for those who attended.
“The story of this community and the work you continue to do to repair the world forever reminds us to have faith that there are brighter days ahead,” Obama said as the crowd chuckled.
“They’re a little cynical,” Michelle Obama remarked to her husband, to which he replied “No, no, no. They’re not cynical.”