(JTA) — There was virtual wine spilled and nostalgia for gefilte fish, as well as a serious message to consider the role of women in the bible.
Doug Emhoff, Vice President Kamala Harris’s Jewish husband, hosted the White House’s first-ever online Passover seder on Thursday, two nights before the holiday formally begins.
“We are gathered today for the first Passover celebration of the Biden Harris administration, and I’m excited to join you as the first-ever second gentleman, married to the first woman to serve as Vice President of the United States,” Emhoff said. “And as the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president.”
President Barack Obama launched White House seders in 2009; they have until now been closed to the public.
Emhoff recalled attending his grandmother’s seders in Brooklyn and waxed nostalgic over her brisket and “delightfully gelatinous gefilte fish.”
“Some of my best memories of our my own family’s Jewish traditions,” said Emhoff, who grew up in New Jersey. “My mom, Barb, dressing me and my brother Andy and my sister Jamie and matching outfits to go over to my grandma Anne’s house in Brooklyn for the seder.”
Harris, who later joined Emhoff, said she wanted evidence of the matching outfits.
“I just wish we had a photograph, to really fully appreciate the magnificence of that,” she said.
Emhoff, who was joined in hosting by Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR congregation in Los Angeles, where Emhoff lived until the election, focused on the biblical women who are often overlooked in retellings of the Passover story.
“We should also talk about the women who’ve earned their own chapters in the history books, then and now the often neglected women in the Passover story, including the midwives who saved Moses, the mother who nursed him, the Egyptian princess who spared him the pain of slavery, the sister, a prophet in her own right, who watched over him, and ultimately led the Israelites in a song of liberation,” Emhoff said, likening them to the first responders, teachers and others who continued to work throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
Emhoff drew his remarks in part from a National Council of Jewish Women supplement to the Haggadah, “The Five Women of the Exodus.”
President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, made an appearance. They, together with Harris, emphasized the closing wish of the Haggadah, “Next year in Jerusalem.”
Biden alluded to the necessity of Zoom seders in a pandemic.”We can close the Seder by adapting a familiar refrain: Not only next year in Jerusalem. But next year in person.”
Harris echoed: “Happy Passover, to all who celebrate, and indeed, next year in Jerusalem, next year, in person.”
Top Jewish staffers led portions of the seder, including Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technologies, who said that on her walks home from work, she recalled her Holocaust survivor grandparents.
“When I leave the White House and walk down the steps of the Executive Office Building, I look up to my right and see the Washington Memorial lit up against the dark night,” she said. “I think of my grandparents, and I think of the lessons of their lives, the fear and the pain and the gift of freedom. They taught us to never forget it.”
Jonathan Cedarbaum, the legal adviser to the National Security Council, held up a frayed Haggadah.
“This Haggadah was used by my grandfather, Lou Goldman, my mother’s father when he led seders in Brooklyn, New York as a newlywed in the 1920s, and a young father in the 1930s. Its spine is fraying a little bit, its pages are marked, not only with his little jottings, but also with wine spills from decades past,” Cedarbaum said. “And so to me, those stains are not imperfections. They are messages reaching across the generations conveying just as powerfully as the words of the Haggadah Passover central message, or one of its central messages, that each generation lets tell the next about a very ancient struggle for freedom.”