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At White House Seder: Gefilte Fish, Brisket and a Host of Familiar Faces

5 years ago
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Why was Monday night different from all the other nights in the White House?

For the second year, the Obama family night hosted a seder in the White House, with gefilte fish, tzimmes, kugel, matzo ball soup and brisket, I'm told (entire menu at the end of the column). The seder -- marking the first night of Passover -- was in the Old Family Dining Room and, like last year, the group used the no-frills Maxwell House haggadah--the Seder guide-- named after the coffee maker.

The seder started at about 6:30 and ran approximately two hours, and many of the participants remembered when a small group of Obama presidential campaign staffers threw together a seder in a hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2008. Eric Lesser, then the campaign's chief baggage wrangler (and now an assistant to White House senior adviser David Axelrod) organized the hotel seder because Passover that year came during the hotly contested Pennsylvania primary and staffers did not have time to go home for the holiday.

Lesser got hold of a seder "kit" from the Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania -- complete with the haggadah -- and as Jewish and non-Jewish staffers gathered, then Democratic White House hopeful Barack Obama dropped in to join the group, as did Valerie Jarrett, now a White House senior adviser, and pal Eric Whitaker, a University of Chicago Medical Center executive.

The seder comes with a bonus: Because it is clearly a private, personal affair with longtime staffers and their families, the Obama White House avoids having leaders of different U.S. Jewish groups feel slighted that they were not invited.

In 2009, the White House seder was on the second night of Passover. Obama sat at the head of the long table in the Old Family Dining Room. Most of the Harrisburg group was there, as were other staffers. The Obama daughters, Malia and Sasha, found the afikomen -- the hidden matzo.

This year, the seder was on the first night of Passover. Obama sat in the middle of the table, not at the head. Many of the same Harrisburg core group were there again -- Lesser, with his mother, Joan (last year he brought his father, Martin); Arun Chaudhary, videographer for the campaign and now the White House; Samantha Tubman, a campaign press assistant and now a deputy in the White House social secretary's office; and Jen Psaki, then traveling press secretary and now the White House deputy communications chief.
Folks passed along to the White House chefs their favorite recipes: Susan Sher, Mrs. Obama's chief of staff and White House liaison to the Jewish community, sent along a recipe for a Passover noodle kugel that came from Jeanne Steiner, her sister. Mrs. Lesser shared her carrot soufflé recipe, and Herbie Ziskend, a campaign staffer now with Vice President Biden's operation, offered his recipe for charoses.

I'm told by one of the participants that the seder was festive and had all the traditional elements: "It went the way most seders do. We read the Maxwell House haggadah and did four questions, sang Dayenu, made Hillel sandwiches and searched for afikomen. We concluded with the cup for Elijah and singing 'Eliyahu Hanavi.'

"It was a meaningful way to mark the holiday with co-workers who have become close friends, and to reflect on all that has happened since the first seder in Harrisburg. And the matzo balls were pretty good, too!"

The White House released a photo of the seder, above. From right to left, it's Psaki, President Obama, Lisa Kohnke (deputy director of White House advance), Lesser, Joan Lesser, and Joanna Cohen, Sher's step-daughter.

I obtained the menu of the Obama White House 2010 seder. Here it is:

Gefilte Fish
Chicken Soup with Matzo Balls
Braised Beef Brisket
Chicken Roast
Sweet Potato-Carrot Tzimmes
Carrot Souffle
Spring Asparagus
Flourless Chocolate Cake
Golden Apricot Cake
Brown Sugar Macaroons

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