With all the talk the last few weeks about the much disputed size of the Chanukah party guest list (Tevi Troy calls it a "modern Chanukah miracle" that the guest list increased, while the White House says they always had invited 550 people), the Washington Post’s Reliable Source gossip column had an interesting tidbit today in an item about Monday’s White House holiday party for the press. It reports: "The guest list was signficantly pruned from years past, although the number of bloggers were up." So perhaps the Chanukah party was treated no differently than any other holiday party that the Obamas hosted this year in the White House?
Anyway, in addition to the disputed decrease in guests, and the invitations saying "holiday" instead of "Chanukah," President Obama’s lighting of a menorah in the White House will be closed to the press — unlike President Bush, who annually opened the event to reporters and photographers. (A White House official says a photo is likely to be released afterwards.) Should any of this matter? No.
Why, exactly, does President Obama have to celebrate Chanukah the same exact way that President George W. Bush did? I’m reminded of something that happened back in 2003, when I was working as a reporter at the Washington Jewish Week. Republican Bob Ehrlich had been elected governor of Maryland the previous year, and for his first holiday season in the governor’s mansion, he decided he wanted to have a Chanukah party, where he could invite state Jewish leaders along with Jewish friends and acquaintances (his frequent golf partner Tony Kornheiser, the later infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff) … and even the Jewish press! After the invitations went out, I got a call from a Maryland Jewish leader and Democrat who complained. The reason? The previous Democratic governor had every December during the holiday season invited a few dozen Jewish leaders to his mansion for a sit-down lunch, where the Jewish community would formally "present" their agenda for the legislative session which began a month later. And in this Democrat’s mind, this was somehow diminishing the Jewish community, because instead of participating in an ostensibly policy-oriented event (albeit one where there was simply a presentation, not any kind of detailed back-and-forth discussion), now the Jewish community was "only" invited to a party. Aside from the fact getting the chance to spend a couple minutes chatting up the governor over bagels and kugel might have been just as effective as a formal presentation, the complainy struck me as ridiculous. Why can’t the governor celebrate the holidays the way he wants to celebrate them, instead of copying the last governor? There were plenty of chances for Jewish community leaders to lobby the governor and his staff during the legislative session.
So if President Obama wants to have a more "intimate" party, or use different language on the invitations, why is it such a big deal? Can’t a president create his own traditions for the holiday, just like he implements his own policies? When President Obama held a Passover seder in the White House this year, does that mean George W. Bush is somehow less of a friend to the Jews because he never did the same? Of course not.
The only things that really matter are that it’s still a Chanukah party specifically for the Jewish community, and the food is still going to be kosher. Happy Chanukah!