A Low-Key, High Profile Seder
By Garance Franke-Ruta
Last night, President Obama held what the White House believes is the first Seder to be hosted by a sitting American president at the White House. A small affair, the private event in the Old Family Dining Room was a kind of reunion for its participants, a number of whom had attended an informal Seder together a year ago in the basement of the Sheraton Hotel in Harrisburg, Penn.
Organized by Eric Lesser, a class of 2007 Harvard graduate who worked as a luggage wrangler and driver on then-candidate Barack Obama's campaign, the 2008 Seder was an impromptu marking of the annual Jewish holiday celebrating the escape from slavery in Egypt. Obama joined the dinner's young organizers in the basement, along with his close longtime friends Valerie Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, who were traveling with him at the time.
At the conclusion of the Seder, Obama and the assembled group jokingly added "Next year in the White House!" after the traditional Seder refrain "Next year in Jerusalem!"
And so it was. Lesser, a campaign legend for his dancing skills and heroic rescues of wayward press suitcases, is now a special assistant to Obama adviser David Axelrod with a West Wing office abutting the president's, and organized the traditional second night of Passover service.
The menu was traditional Eastern European: matzoh ball soup, brisket, roasted chicken, noodle kugel and macaroons for dessert. The White House chefs cooked the food but used recipes provided by the attendees' families.
Attending, beginning on the president's left and going clockwise, were: Samantha Tubman, assistant social secretary; Melissa Winter, the first lady's deputy chief of staff, Sasha Obama, Malia Obama and first lady Michelle Obama.
Continuing clockwise are: associate White House counsel Susan Sher, her son Evan Moore and Michael Cohen (both obscured); Valerie Jarrett, director of the office of public liason; and Eric Whitaker, a longtime friend of the Obamas (obscured).
On the opposite side of the table, starting on the president's right and continuing counterclockwise, are: Sher's husband Neil Cohen; Laura Moser (Arun Chaudhary's wife); Chaudhary, the White House videographer; Herbie Ziskend, another 2007 college graduate and former campaign baggage handler, now an aide to Vice President Biden; Eric Lesser and his father, Martin Lesser; Lisa Kohnke, deputy director of advance; Dana M. Lewis, the first lady's personal aide; and Obama personal assistant Reggie Love.
The guests using pillows are doing so not because the White House chairs are uncomfortable, but because of the contemporary custom of using pillows to symbolize the Passover service injunction to eat the meal reclining, itself a means of symbolizing being at peace and free.
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