This past Wednesday, my husband and I were privileged to attend the White House Hanukkah reception:
Here’s how it all happened. The Friday before, I received an invitation:
I immediately called my husband. Do we drop everything and attend, or would it be too crazy to go in and out of Washington for the day (we live in Denver, CO) and have to make last-minute arrangement for our three kids? If we went, I would even have to cancel a gig, which I was not excited about. I put it out on my Facebook page and was surprised that everyone – even staunch Republicans (except for one person) – urged me to go.
We thought about it over shabbat and, by Saturday night, we had decided to go. I mean, c’mon, how many times is one invited to the White House? So, I RSVP’d and submitted our social security numbers and other private information. As one friend of mine who was also invited said, “I thought it might be a scam but the risk seemed worth it.”
Of course, I had no idea what to wear. I put this out on Facebook, too. A friend from D.C. urged me to wear a suit. Others thought I should wear a black dress or a cocktail dress. But for a mid-day party? Aren’t those just for evening affairs?
SPOILER ALERT: In the end I went with the black dress:
With all of the arrangements in place, we woke up at the crack of dawn on Wednesday, put on our fancy clothes, and caught our flight to D.C. without so much as a carry-on bag. As the plane was about to take off, we read the news that Alan Gross, an American Jew, had been released from the Cuban jail in which he had been held for five years. Amazing.
We arrived in D.C. around noon and, knowing that the invitation was for 2:00 PM with doors opening at 1:30, we opted to stop for lunch on the way. After all, would there be food at a mid-afternoon party or just drinks? It was after lunch, so we thought it would be safer to eat some lunch before we went because we would have to zip back to the airport right after the event and we were worried we wouldn’t have a chance to eat all day.
So, we stopped for a sandwich and arrived at the White house at 1:45. We were met by a line of hundreds of people, all in black (I was the one in the yellow coat). Luckily, temps were in the 50’s that day.
Standing on that line was an opportunity to meet some interesting people (there were about 500 attendees to the reception, followed by another 500 or so that same evening). It was also then that we learned that Alan Gross’ release was actualIy a coda to a much larger story of America normalizing relations with Cuba. We recognized a few people in the line and even ran into a friend who arrived with a man we had never met (every invitation was for the invitee plus one guest). The gentleman showed us a Cuban cigar and told us that he was going to present it to President Obama at the party in honor of the day’s big news. My husband and I nodded politely but were both thinking “That’s crazy and there’s no way he’ll be able to do that.” Wrong. Check out this story on ABC News.
After about an hour, we made it though through security and into the party. Did I mention that we were a bit late because we stopped for lunch? Another mistake. There was a delicious spread of latkas (“I have heard the latkes here are outstanding. Am I wrong?” President Obama quipped. “Not as good as your mom’s, but they’re good.”), sushi, lamb chops, desserts, drinks, you name it. We had just eaten lunch so I just had a few sushi rolls and my husband didn’t eat a thing.
I even think it’s safe to say that the spread was kosher enough for any Jew (OK, fine: most Jews):
We spent our time marveling at everything – the red room, the green room, all the portraits of the presidents and first spouses, the Steinway piano, the miniature candy White House. We just soaked it all in. Christmas was everywhere.
At some point, everyone started getting into place to hear the President speak. We must have waited for him to come in for about an hour. During that time we met a lovely couple from Delaware who looked to be in their 80’s and had been Biden supporters from the beginning. We met a former Congressman and we saw some old friends. We were standing right in front of Alan Gross’ sister-in-law who made sure someone had taken her as their guest to the party so she could pressure President Obama to release her brother-in-law. As fate would have it, in the end she was there just to celebrate his release and to thank the President.
Soon, the President and First Lady arrived:
The President spoke beautifully about the mitzvah of “pidyon shivuyim,” releasing the captives, and of America’s renewed relationship with Cuba. Rabbi Bradley Sharvit Artson spoke eloquently as well and led a candle-lighting ceremony. Two students from the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, a Jewish-Arab school that was recently attacked by arsonists, lit a menorah that the students there had made:
Here is a video of the candle-lighting ceremony:
I don’t think the next part was in the script but somebody began singing Maoz Tsur, a traditional Hanukkah song, and we all joined in and sang it together:
It was an incredible moment, in part because the tunes for lighting the Hanukkah candles and Maoz Tsur are so widespread among ashkenazi Jews that almost everybody was singing. It felt unifying and powerful. I was even quoted in the next day’s New York Times saying, “I found it moving, given Jewish history, to perform the ritual of lighting the menorah and singing the blessings together at the White House. It wasn’t that long ago that Jews were not in a position to do that.”
After the Obamas left, we shmoozed a bit more and took a bunch more pictures. We couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that there was a line to get a picture with President Clinton’s portrait while, across the way, President Bush’s portrait sat lonely (that obviously changes, depending on the administration).
At about 5:00 PM, we headed out to the Metro and went straight back to the airport. We checked in on our kids and learned that everything had gone smoothly back at home.
We were home by 11:45PM with nothing but pictures and memories.
(Oh, and this napkin.)
Julie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting, positive music. You can watch her latest videos here. Sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.