WASHINGTON (Dec. 24)
“This is a chaotic game,” President Clinton declared as the dreidels spun out of control on his desk.
Surrounded by 14 students from a local Jewish day school — and as many dreidels — the commander in chief tried his hand at the age-old game Tuesday during a menorah-lighting in the Oval Office celebrating the first night of Chanukah.
Looking at the pile of chocolate gelt, Clinton told the youngsters: “Nobody can take everything. No matter what the game says, you have to split it.”
Clinton was among several dozen world leaders who lit candles at sundown in their respective countries, kicking off the holiday — and a yearlong celebration of Israel’s 50th anniversary.
The children gathered with Clinton around a menorah given to him by Mayrim Baram, an Israeli whose son died in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Baram crafted the ornate, silver-and-gold menorah as a tribute to Clinton’s efforts to promote peace in the Middle East.
“I know that your teachers and rabbis have instilled in you the values of compassion, justice and tolerance,” Clinton told the students from Adas Israel Synagogue’s Jewish day school in Washington.
“If you have courage to follow those values, you can be the Maccabees of our times.”
The children sang the blessing over the candles, then broke out into a lively rendition of Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Light One Candle.” One of their teachers, Marilyn Fine, said they chose the song because it has “a message that we think is every bit as American as it is Jewish.”
The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade children, many of whose families altered their vacation plans so they could take part in the ceremony, were visibly ecstatic, even giddy, as they stood astride the president.
Eleven-year-old Danny Lew, who lit the candles, said afterward that he was not sure why he was given the honor.
“It might have been because I’m president of the student council at my school or it might have been because my father works here,” he said, referring to Jack Lew, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The younger Lew had to improvise when one of his teachers, perhaps overwhelmed by her surroundings, accidentally lit the first candle instead of the shamas, or lead candle.
Hana Lieberman, the 9-year-old daughter of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), said she was impressed by how Clinton “knew everything about Chanukah.”
“It seemed he had played dreidel before,” she added.
Indeed, it wasn’t the first time Clinton hosted local children at the White House to celebrate the holiday.
But this time around, nobody’s hair caught on fire as it did in 1994, when Clinton had to pat out a flame that singed the curls of a very embarrassed young girl.
Meanwhile, in brief remarks to reporters, Clinton said he was hopeful about the prospects for advancing the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria next year.
“I think the openness is there, and I think that people are sobered by the consequences of the absence of a viable peace process,” Clinton said, adding that his optimism was based in part on Palestinian progress on security issues and Israel’s discussions of troop pullbacks from the West Bank.
“Maybe it’s just the holiday season, but I’m feeling pretty upbeat about it,” he said.