Sen. Eric Lesser: Seder with the Obamas

Just 10 years ago, President Obama hosted the White House’s very first Seder — with a little help from his staff. State Senator Eric Lesser — who got his start as a campaign staffer — shares the full backstory.

  • President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host a Passover Seder dinner in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, April 15, 2014. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

  • Above, the Obamas hosted the White House’s first Seder dinner in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House in 2009. That year, Sen. Lesser brought his dad as his guest — along with several boxes of Shmura matzah from Longmeadow’s Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

  • President Barack Obama marks the beginning of Passover with a Seder dinner among friends and staff in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House in 2010. That year, the President flew overnight from Afghanistan to make it back for the dinner. Above right, Senator Eric Lesser brought his mom as his guest, and the White House chefs prepared her breadless carrot souffle, “much to her delight,” he writes. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

  • President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama and family mark the beginning of Passover with a Seder dinner with friends and staff in the Old Family Dining Room of the White House, March 29, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

  • “After I left the White House in 2011 to attend Harvard Law School,” Lesser writes, “the Obamas, both Harvard Law alums, liked to offer advice on managing law school and hear what was happening with their old professors.” Photo courtesy of Sen. Eric Lesser

For Hampshire Life
Published: 4/11/2019 1:02:15 PM

On the first night of Passover in 2008, I found myself in the middle of Pennsylvania with no way to get home.

I was a traveling aide to then-Senator Barack Obama, in charge of keeping track of the luggage and other logistics for Obama, his staff and a pack of traveling reporters as he criss-crossed the United States running for President.

Along with Arun Chaudhary, the campaign’s videographer, and Herbie Ziskend, an advance staffer, we decided to host an impromptu Seder in the basement of our hotel in Harrisburg. During a plane-ride the day before, and with some prodding from David Axelrod, I casually mentioned to Obama that a few of his traveling staff would mark the first night of Passover when we arrived in Harrisburg. Obama told me he wanted to go. I figured he was being polite.

Obama began early that morning at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, where he was kicking off a whistle-stop tour that would end in Harrisburg late that evening. The night before, he spoke to 35,000 people on the Independence Mall. The pivotal Pennsylvania primary was three days away. The atmosphere was tense: incendiary old clips from Obama’s former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, were still playing on endless loop on cable news.

For the moment, though, I had a Seder to plan. I called my cousin, who was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. He rushed to the campus Hillel and threw a box together filled with Manischewitz wine, matzah, macaroons, and some Maxwell House Haggadah (the kind given out by grocery stores since the 1930s).

I packed the campaign’s luggage and my cousin’s emergency provisions into a U-Haul and got to Harrisburg a few hours before Obama and the rest of our team was set to arrive, close to 10 p.m.

A fellow campaign staffer helped me find a windowless conference room of the Sheraton. As I was setting up, a couple of the Secret Service agents popped in and starting peeking through my boxes of matzah and checking under the table. Minutes later, Obama popped in, asking "Lesser, is it Seder time?"

Nobody had arrived yet. I told him we’d start soon. Soon after, about six staffers and close friends arrived, including Valerie Jarrett and Eric Whitaker, a close friend of Obama’s from Chicago who was accompanying him on the whistle-stop tour.

It was an intimate, no-frills affair. Not a single reporter, not a single TV camera or photographer. No hands to shake. No babies to kiss. For one brief evening, we escaped the crush of a presidential campaign.

Obama was fluent in the story of Exodus and relished peppering Arun, Herbie and me with questions about our own family traditions and our interpretations of the Haggadah’s teachings. He noted that Michelle, Malia and Sasha were at a Seder with family friends in Chicago that night.

We diligently read through the entire Haggadah. At one point, Obama asked me a question about how my family handled a certain portion. I had to sheepishly admit, “Senator, my family has never gotten this far!” Everyone laughed. My Hebrew School years at Springfield’s Sinai Temple could only go so far.

As the evening concluded, just before midnight, there is a portion of the Haggadah when the guests raise their wine glasses and pronounce, “Next year in Jerusalem.” Obama, ever the optimist, raised his glass a second time, confidently announcing, “Next year in the White House!”

A year later, the same group re-assembled in the Family Dining Room for the first Seder in American history celebrated by a president in the White House. President Obama wanted to keep the same spirit from the original gathering in Harrisburg, so all the same people were invited, plus a small number of additional guests. Mrs. Obama, Malia and Sasha joined, as did several close Obama family friends from Chicago.

Despite the grand location, much of the Seder would be recognizable to any American Jewish family. We kept the same Maxwell House Haggadahs. We used a “shared leader” concept, so each participant took turns reading. Sasha read the four questions. Herbie was in charge of hiding the afikomen from Malia and Sasha (a favorite hiding place was an armoire in the Green Room). We sang traditional songs, like Dayeinu and made drops of wine as we read aloud each of the ten plagues.

But there were also constant reminders that this was not an ordinary Seder.

There is a tradition in Jewish homes, at the end of the festive meal, to conclude the evening by singing the Hebrew hymn “Eliyahu Hanavi.” Families typically open the front door of their home to welcome Elijah the Prophet, and with him the messiah, to bring peace to earth and humanity. At the White House, we improvised a bit, opening the door to the hallway, since the Secret Service wasn’t keen on opening the front door.

The Kiddush cup we used was a gift to Mrs. Obama from a prominent Rabbi during a visit she took to Prague’s Jewish Quarter. Sara Netanyahu, the wife of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, gave the Obamas a silver Seder plate that was also added to the table.

At the suggestion of Eric Whitaker, we also added a shared reading of the Emancipation Proclamation, tying the experience of Jews and African-Americans to a common story of resilience and liberation. Each year, the President explained to his daughters and guests the centrality of the Exodus story to both Jewish and African-American spiritual traditions.

The food, of course, was spectacular, but also very familiar, with all the Ashkenazi staples. I remember feeling a bit nervous and out of place each year as the Seder began. But brisket and potato kugel taste the same everywhere, so after a few bites, it felt like I was transported back to my grandparents’ house in Brooklyn. I could relax.

The meal was typically served family style. Each guest offered a family recipe. The White House chefs prepared my Mom’s breadless carrot soufflé, much to her delight. I also brought several boxes of Shmura matzah from Longmeadow’s Lubavitcher Yeshiva Academy each year.

There were also some challenges unique to the White House. Our first year, a minor panic ensued when Susan Sher, Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff and close friend from Chicago, called to say her macaroons were stuck at the Secret Service checkpoint (apparently the lack of yeast made them too dense for the x-ray machines). Obama’s personal aide, Reggie Love, was dispatched to negotiate their entry.

I remember doing a double take the first year to see gefilte fish delicately arranged on splendid White House china. The matzah ball soup was served from a massive sterling silver tureen. The first year, my Dad brought an assortment of Passover dessert staples: candy fruit slices, chocolate covered jelly rings and chocolate covered matzah. Seeing the grocery-store candies served (literally) on a silver platter was a disorienting experience. Each year, the Obamas served the Seder meal on the White House’s collection of Truman dishware, to honor President Truman’s status as the President who formally recognized the new State of Israel in 1948.

Much like our first Seder on the campaign trail, the White House Seders were relaxed and familiar. There were no photo-ops, no roving reporters, no live streaming. No grand pronouncements by famous Rabbis or powerful community leaders. This was a Seder among friends, family members and colleagues who had been through a lot together. It was important for President Obama, and for all of us, to keep the same camaraderie and humility we all had back in that windowless Harrisburg conference room.

As time went on, the Seders also became a bit of a reunion. We swapped campaign war stories, gave job updates, and heard updates from the Obamas on Malia and Sasha’s sports games.

I brought my Dad as my guest in 2009, my Mom in 2010 and my wife Alison after that. Even our oldest daughter Rose made an appearance the last three years. After I left the White House in 2011 to attend Harvard Law School, the Obamas, both Harvard Law alums, liked to offer advice on managing law school and hear what was happening with their old professors. During the height of my State Senate campaign in 2014, President Obama was eager for updates and shared his own experience running for State Senate in 1996. Once I was in office, he was eager to hear how things were going and to offer advice from his years in the Illinois State Senate.

Around our Seder table, the issues of the day were rarely a focus of discussion; we preferred talking about family, jobs, sports, and personal updates, anyway. But those issues were also impossible to fully ignore. During the first Seder, in April 2009, Reggie whispered something in Obama’s ear, and the President discreetly rose from the table to take a phone call. Pirates in the Indian Ocean were holding an American ship captain, Richard Phillips, hostage. Captain Phillips was rescued by Navy Seals just days later.

President Obama flew overnight from Afghanistan to be at the Seder in 2010, arriving at the White House just before 9 a.m. that morning. The day before, he spoke to 2,000 American troops at Bagram Air Base and had a tense meeting with President Hamid Karzai about corruption in the Afghan government. Less than a week before that, he signed the Affordable Care Act into law. He returned from a high-profile trip to Israel just days before the 2013 Seder.

The low-key, intimate nature of the Seder stood in contrast to the growing profile of the event in the outside world. Elie Wiesel regularly called me to suggest discussion topics. During a call with Prime Minister Netanyahu in 2011, President Obama referenced his White House Seder and the universal themes it represents, in between tenser topics like U.S. funding for Israel’s Iron Dome rocket defense system, violence near the Gaza Strip and progress toward a regional peace agreement.

During a 2013 address to the Israeli Knesset, President Obama spoke plainly about what the Passover holiday had come to mean for him: “To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus told a powerful tale about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity — a tale that was carried from slavery through the civil rights movement. For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.”

Shortly after our first White House Seder, my Aunt brought a photo of the event to my grandmother, who was living in an assisted living facility in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. Many of the residents were Holocaust survivors or came from families that fled Europe’s pogroms. Her generation was often fearful to wear their Judaism publicly.

My grandmother admired the photo, and then shook her head in wonder and disbelief. “Only in America could something like this happen,” she said.

Whenever I feel like America may be at a breaking point, whenever I hear the latest insult or divisive comment poison our public discourse, I remind myself of Passover in the Obama White House.

America’s first African-American President commemorating the Jewish exodus from slavery, in a White House built by slaves. Around a table soaked in history, we found ourselves linked by a common belief that the struggle for justice is universal, whether at the banks of the Red Sea or on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

In the United States of America, truly anything is possible. Let’s hope that sense of common purpose can return.

Eric P. Lesser was elected to the Massachusetts Senate on November 4, 2014. He represents nine communities in the First Hampden & Hampshire District, proudly serving western Massachusetts as one of the youngest members of the State Senate.

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