It’s interesting the things you notice, but my first thought upon walking through the White House — my first-ever visit to the presidential residence — was how much smaller it really is in real life. Whether in depictions on the small or large screen or in the fanciful imaginations of children and adults alike, let’s face it: The White House is a palace; it corridors ooze with grandeur; the building itself is designed to intimidate foreign heads of states and pesky members of the opposition.
But up close, as I learned last week as one of many starry-eyed invitees to one of two official Chanukah parties thrown Dec. 9 by President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, the White House, while grand, isn’t all that big. When you get right down to it, it’s a house, not a palace. And, as befits a house built by the people for a president whose unique contribution to government theory is that he is not a king, its grandeur emanates not from its size, but from its history.
Call me jaded or idealistic — I’ll freely admit that I’m probably both — but on that night last week, as Holocaust survivor Manny Lindenbaum and his granddaughter Lauren lit a menorah made from nails scavenged by another survivor, Erwin Thieberger, at Auschwitz, I was humbled not by President Obama before me, but by the office he represents. It was the history of the house, of the country, of the presidency, of the fact that we live in a nation where a menorah can be lit and publicly celebrated from the East Room of the presidential mansion that made me speechless.
History happened to feature prominently in each of Obama’s speeches that Wednesday, as it did in the remarks of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin — the president’s special invitee at the afternoon party — and in the words of blessing offered by Rabbi Susan Talve of St. Louis’ Central Reform Congregation and Rabbi Sid Schwarz, senior fellow of Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership and founding rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda.
“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,” Obama said before introducing Rivlin. “And even as we draw from the best of our traditions, we’re never afraid to build on what came before and to forge a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”
For his part, Rivlin invoked a teaching of Rabbi Abraham Heschel to draw inspiration from the light of a menorah.
Heschel “wrote in his book, Insecurity of Freedom, that people usually follow the path of regression. They begin high and fall down,” said Rivlin. “But instead, we should be like the Chanukah candles and follow the path of progression. He said that the people will have the strength to ascend if the leader himself continues to rise.”
Schwarz spoke of his father’s historic journey when he led the crowd in the blessings on the menorah. The Holocaust survivor departed Berlin two weeks before Kristallnacht at the age of 16 and was one of the last passengers to successfully travel to the United States aboard the MS St. Louis.
“Five years later, my father would proudly put on an American uniform and return to Europe to fight with the U.S. Army to defeat the Nazis,” Schwarz told the 500 people gathered for the evening party.
“Chanukah is a festival of liberty, teaching us that freedom is not free,” he said. “When there is evil and tyranny in the world, we must summon the courage to fight it.”
Over the course of the night, attendees like myself pondered the historical import of that charge as we meandered through the ornate rooms on the first floor of the White House. Downstairs, on the ground floor, those leaving stopped to look at two historic menorahs on display. One of them belonged to Arthur Freeman, a retired State Department official living in Potomac. Designed by architect Richard Meier, the menorah’s first five candleholders represented five different expulsions of Jews around the world — Egypt, Roman Palestine, France, England and Spain. The sixth recalled the emancipation of Jews living in Vienna in 1890, while the seventh and eighth referred to the Russian pogroms and the Holocaust.
“The menorah,” read an accompanying plaque, “acknowledges the indomitable will of the Jewish people to live despite overwhelming adversity.”
Joshua Runyan is the editorial director of Mid-Atlantic Media, which owns WJW.