At White House Hanukkah party, Obama emphasizes freedom and food
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At White House Hanukkah party, Obama emphasizes freedom and food

President Obama speaks at the first of two White House Hanukkah parties in Washington, Dec. 17, 2014.  (Steve Sheffey)

President Obama speaking at the first of two White House Hanukkah parties in Washington, Dec. 17, 2014. (Steve Sheffey)

I’ve been JTA’s Washington bureau chief for 11 years, but this was the first time I scored a coveted invitation to the annual White House Hanukkah party.

A Washington tradition started by President George W. Bush, the party has actually expanded (to meet demand) to two: one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

This year’s mood was particularly festive, given that the parties were on Wednesday, the same day that Alan Gross was released from five years in a Cuban prison.

President Obama, who earned enthusiastic cheers at both parties, is still a smart enough pol to have played that to the hilt.

“I’m told that in the Jewish tradition, one of the great mitzvahs is ‘pidyon shvuyim,’ ” he said to applause at the afternoon party. “My Hebrew is not perfect, but I get points for trying. But it describes the redemption, the freeing, of captives. And that’s what we’re celebrating today, because after being unjustly held in Cuba for more than five years, American Alan Gross is free.”

That got laudatory whoops.

Obama also emphasized another Jewish tradition: food.

“I spoke to [Gross] on his flight. He said he was willing to interrupt his corned beef sandwich to talk to me. I told him he had mustard in his mustache; I couldn’t actually see it,” the president said.

Then it was back to the theme of freedom, with a deft pivot to his controversial reversal Wednesday of decades of U.S. policy isolating Cuba:

“He’s back where he belongs — in America, with his family, home for Hanukkah,” Obama said. “And I can’t think of a better way to mark this holiday, with its message that freedom is possible, than with the historic changes that I announced today in our Cuba policy.”

And back to food:

“So what brings us together is not just lox and latkes, although I have heard the latkes here are outstanding.” (The latkes, like Gross and the president, got applause.) “Am I wrong? Not as good as your mom’s, but they’re good. We’re here to celebrate a story that took place more than 2,000 years ago, when a small group of Maccabees rose up to defeat their far more powerful oppressors.”

Partygoers – over 500 for each celebration — were jubilant, and not just because of the season and the good news. The hourlong line through security, winding from outside the adjacent Treasury building, was made pleasant by sunny, unseasonably warm weather.

Invitees enter the East Wing and may tour the rooms decked out in Christmas decorations, which attract the attention of even the most Yuletide averse – who could resist the robotic version of the Obama family pooches, Bo and Sunny? And then there is the massive gingerbread White House – presumably not certified kosher, but who would dare take a bite? (Besides, there was plenty of kosher food to be had, including latkes, tender lamb chops with cranberry sauce and aromatic smoked salmon.)

There was some visual and aural relief from Christmas themes, including Tizmoret, a vocal group from the City University of New York’s Queens College Hillel. The group serenaded the guests as they entered an alcove on the way to the main reception, where the four Hanukkah menorahs were on display – three made by Israeli children.

My fellow guests at the afternoon included numerous journalists and Jewish Democratic cognoscenti,  among them Ann Lewis, an adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton; Reva Price, an adviser to Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the House minority leader; and Rabbi Jack Moline, who just ended a stint as director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Also in attendance was Rabbi David Saperstein, finishing up four decades of service with the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center (making him, incidentally, the longest serving faith-based lobbyist in town) now that the Senate confirmed him last week as a special envoy for religious freedom.

I asked Saperstein where he was first headed in his new role.

“Burma,” he said, to discuss the Mohingar.

Turning to my 16-year-old son, my date for the party, I explained: “That’s a Jewish rabbi who is headed to a Buddhist nation to tell them not to persecute its Muslim minority.”

The other message of this year’s Hanukkah season is that, well, everyone is Jewish. We wrote Tuesday that Vice President Joe Biden told celebrants at Chabad’s annual National Menorah lighting on the Ellipse that “Jewish heritage is American heritage.” The Los Angeles Jewish Journal’s David Suissa captured this gem from the evening White House party:

“Mr President,” [a man standing next to Suissa] said in his booming voice, “when I told my Christian friend I was coming to a Hanukkah party at the White House, he told me, ‘I didn’t know the president was Jewish!”

The president let out a serious belly laugh. But in all the commotion of people asking other questions and everyone clicking their smartphone cameras, it was easy to lose sight of the president to see if he had anything to say.

I kept my eyes straight on him. It was clear that the “president was Jewish” idea had intrigued him. After about three or four seconds, as he was walking away, and looking at no one in particular, the president just said, “I am, in my soul.”

Israeli schools figured in the candle lighting at both parties: Hand in Hand, the Arab-Jewish school that was the target of a recent arson attack, was represented by two of its ninth-graders at the first reception, and Yemin Orde, Israel’s school for recent olim, sent a student to light a candle at the second party. Also lighting a candle at the second party was Adam Levine, a professor of emergency medicine at Brown who recently returned from Liberia, where he was treating Ebola patients.

“Now I just want to be clear, this is not Adam Levine, People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive,” Obama helpfully explained.

Seekers of Hollywood glitter at the second party at least got a glimpse of Gwyneth Paltrow – invited, perhaps, because of her recently announced conversion plans.

“Oh, she’s from ‘Iron Man,’ ” one youngster present noted, according to his dad, Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s Washington director.