My White House Chanukah

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If you should ever happen to find yourself in an ornate, high-ceilinged room and a military-uniformed classical string ensemble is segueing from a flawless rendition of a Bach Concerto to an equally impressive (if considerably less inspiring) version of “I Have a Little Dreidel,” you can only be one place: the White House Chanukah Party.

The annual event hosted by President and Mrs. Bush for a few score representatives of the American Jewish community is a tangible expression of the good will the First Couple have demonstrated to a multitude of the nation’s religious groups, Jews among them. Whether one considers President Bush II’s domestic or foreign policies principled (as I, for the most part, do) or preposterous, the President must be given high points for his reaching out to Americans of faith.

Among the Jewish groups to whom the White House extended invitations to this year’s Chanukah celebration, which took place on December 18, the third day of the holiday, was Agudath Israel of America, and I was honored to attend as one of its representatives. It was a pleasure to meet and mingle with Jews from other parts of the American Jewish community, an opportunity that doesn’t present itself as often as I’d like. And it was a privilege to meet, if briefly, President and Mrs. Bush. I chose to use my moment in their company to offer them my sincere and solemn blessings, thereby disappointing my 13-year-old son, who had wanted me to request a Presidential decree that the school week be reduced to three days.

The event, true to its Jewish nature, was awash in food, all of it under strict Orthodox supervision, produced in a White House kitchen fully “koshered” for the event. As another observant participant observed to me when I greeted him, “This is an amazing symbol of the malchus shel chesed [government of kindness] that is this great country.” It was indeed hard to not be impressed.

But the high point of my White House visit was neither the Presidential receiving line nor the array of kosher victuals (not realizing that the catering would be adhering to the strictest standards, I had earlier in the day had the regrettable foresight to stop in a local kosher eatery, and was hardly hungry).

Nor was the best part of the event seeing a dear friend from my yeshiva days for the first time in three decades. Now an anesthesiologist in the Midwest, he explained that he had received his invitation to the White House gathering as the result of his wife’s “open house” policy for students at a university near their home. A frequent Shabbat guest of theirs several years ago had eventually gone on to become a White House liaison to the Jewish community, and wanted to show his erstwhile Shabbat hosts that he hadn’t forgotten them. My friend himself, he reminded me, had spent more than one Shabbat in my own parents’ similarly open home thirty years earlier.

No, the highlight of my trip to Washington took place before I even entered the White House. I was sitting on a bench outside the East Entrance, enjoying the unseasonably warm December day, watching the line of invitees form, as they waited for the security personnel to open the gates and begin the process of examining identifications and scanning bags.

Sitting there in the descending darkness, I felt a twinge of melancholy at being away from home for even that one night of Chanukah. I had made the necessary arrangements from the perspective of Jewish religious law; the menorah in my home would be lit by my wife or one of my children on my behalf. But still I was troubled by being so far from them.

I have always been struck by the inescapable contrast between, on the one hand, the public, potent pageantry and glitter with which the surrounding culture celebrates its winter holiday and the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah, with tiny flames its truest symbol. And here I was, about to join in a boisterous, bustling celebration – albeit of Chanukah – while the small if potent points of fire created on my behalf were flickering 300 miles away, invisible to me.

It was then that my cellphone clamored for attention. Aroused from my gloomy reverie, I offered it my ear.

It was my wife. She and our children were about to light the menorah and thought I might want to be included, if at a distance. A more accurate thought could not have been had.

And so unfolded the truly transcendent moment of my White House Chanukah, on a park bench outside the grand Presidential residence. To anyone passing by, it would have looked like nothing more than a balding fellow with a graying beard and a broad smile, animatedly singing into a phone.

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16 Responses

  1. Rivka W. says:

    “Tasteful smugness”? Is that only one foot tall, instead of three?

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “rather than a time for unjustified, self-absorbed smugness”

    this is where Oysh and I part company. I happen to enjoy some good clean self-absorbed smugness, as long as it’s done tastefully

  3. Oysh says:

    JO makes a valid point about the underlying triumphalism of this piece vis a vis Christians. I daresay that millions of devout Christians are as appalled by the excesses of commercialism and pageantry when applied to Xmas as are devout Jews about, lehavdil, Chanuka.

    Tragically, there is little evidence to point to the even marginal superiority of the frum community over religious Christians when it comes to ruchnius, yashrus, tznius, kovod habrios, gmilas chesed, bitochon, emunoh pshutoh, etc.

    I, too, believe in ours as the one and only true faith…I just see little to praise in the way our community conducts itself, ego-gratifying polemics notwithtanding.

    Perhaps Chanuka should be a time to reflect on what it means to be misyaven in our time, how dire our spiritual decline has become, and what we need to do to overcome it, rather than a time for unjustified, self-absorbed smugness.

  4. Avi Shafran says:

    Dear JO,

    You’re a true mensch. And I apologize for having been choshed that you might not have been.

    Please, though, don’t hesitate to offer any criticism of anything I write in the future.

    kol tuv,

    AS

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    Dear Rabbi Shafran (assuming that I may :-),

    Thanks for the response. We probably better stop this back and forth at this point. Apologies if I said anything chutzpadik.

    Jewish Observer

  6. Avi Shafran says:

    Dear JO (if I may),

    Maybe it will help if we review our exchange here. I wrote an essay that didn’t, I think, make any strong political or religious points; it was a personal musing on how family trumps power places. You responded by seizing (incredibly) on an in-passing comment about Chanukah candles to take a pot shot against excess in the frum community (an important topic, to be sure, just not the one here); and to seize on a word I used and misinterpret it in a negative way.

    You didn’t ask what I meant, which would have been the generous thing to do, and could have produced a shorter, better exchange. Instead you just assumed your “reading” to be true, and on that basis diagnosed of a lack of hakaras hatov in the essay.

    Please don’t misunderstand. I don’t mind, and indeed look forward, to constructive criticism and the expression of different points of view in responses to things I write. Since I often write about controversial subjects, I expect and value those responses. But here was a piece that did not broach any such controversy and you chose to read into it things that simply weren’t there. I did not call that sinister; I used that word to describe how my words seem to have struck you.

    The pshat in the sentence that puzzled you is that I was contrasting a difference between the surrounding culture and our own religion, not making a case for superiority or inferiority. But, that said, I do indeed indeed consider Judaism the most true faith, and make no apologies for that conviction.

    I hope the above clarifies things for you. Rest assured that I am as ashamed of excess in our community as you are, and that I have sincere hakaras hatov to our country. So, at least in the points you raised, we have no disagreements.

    Best wishes,

    AS

  7. Jewish Observer says:

    “it is hard for me not to be troubled by how you regard two innocuous phrases as somehow sinister.”
    – this is very clever sophistry; calling yourself a name and ascribing the name calling to me

    “I’m not sure why you seem so bent on misreading me”
    – who is calling who sinister here?

    “while I was only stressing the difference, not any “superiority”, I don’t make any apology for considering the Jewish faith my favored one.”
    – not sure how to learn poshut pshat in this sentence

  8. Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Jewish Observer,

    I’m not sure why you seem so bent on misreading me, but let me try to be more clear about the contrast I made.

    Christianity’s winter holiday is most popularly associated with glitter, tinsel, lights and trees (the bigger the better). Judaism’s is most popularly associated with small flames (and size doesn’t matter). The fact that some small subset of Jews may have been affected by the surrounding culture to the point of thinking that “gibborim” is better than “chalashim” and “rabbim” better than “me’atim” — that bigger is better — in no way changes the essential contrast between the two essential forms of celebration. And while I was only stressing the difference, not any “superiority”, I don’t make any apology for considering the Jewish faith my favored one.

    Let me try to be more clear as well about the hakaras hatov we owe our great country. It is immeasurable, and anyone who has ever heard me speak on the subject can attest to my heartfelt appreciation and gratitude for what our country has done for my family and our people. That was precisely what I meant to convey by quoting the gentleman I met and noting that anyone there could only have been impressed — with the fact of an American President putting so much time, energy and money into a Jewish celebration. In other words, they could only feel hakaras hatov. I assumed that readers would understand that intention, and think that anyone who read the piece objectively and not intent on finding fault, understood precisely what I meant.

    I’m sorry if you found, or find, my tone strident. But it is hard for me not to be troubled by how you regard two innocuous phrases as somehow sinister.

    Best wishes,

    AS

  9. Jewish Observer says:

    “What was impressive WAS the chessed. That was my intent, and is the plain reading of the sentences”

    Again you miss my point. What I wrote was the reaction to chesed should ne hakoras hatov, NOT “being impressed”. Also as an FYI, using a tone of stridency does not any way add to the validity of an argument, no matter how authoritative it makes the author appear.

  10. Jewish Observer says:

    ” As to Jewish excesses, we all know they exist (in many things, sadly). But that is hardly related to the point of the essay. Let’s all strive, as we should, for an ayin tova, not a jaundiced one.”

    – your mussar shmuess notwithstanding, my poimt is that the “potent pageantry and glitter” of which you accuse Christainity IS very much found by us, so I suggest you pick another angle with which to establish our superiority.

  11. Avi Shafran says:

    Thanks to all for their comments.

    KT: I’m afraid I have too much baggage to qualify for one of those bios — even hagiographers have limits to what they can ignore! So I think the sad truth that I abandoned my family that night will just have to stand.

    Hillel: Your observation is true and appreciated. But I must say that, as great an honor (for Agudath Israel) it was, no religious Jew would feel terribly seduced in those surroundings (Jewish matrons whose mothers apparently never taught them how to dress, “holiday” trappings that weren’t exactly, uh, Chanukah-themed, etc.). It was very easy to feel that, to borrow Elie Wiesel’s phrase from a different context, it “this is not your place.”

    Micha Berger: You are certainly right. But there is still an inherent difference between the two celebrations, one characterized in its most baseline observance by largeness and bright lights, the other by small flames. Just walking down the street on a night of Chanukah in late December is enough to drive that point home.

    Jewish Observer: What was impressive WAS the chessed. That was my intent, and is the plain reading of the sentences. As to Jewish excesses, we all know they exist (in many things, sadly). But that is hardly related to the point of the essay. Let’s all strive, as we should, for an ayin tova, not a jaundiced one.

  12. Jewish Observer says:

    “I have always been struck by the inescapable contrast between, on the one hand, the public, potent pageantry and glitter with which the surrounding culture celebrates its winter holiday and the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah”

    – have you seen the incredible 2 story silver store that opened up on Ave J where a grocery used to be? In it, Torah-true families can buy a 3 foot solid silver menorah with which to modestly celebrate Chanukah in their 2 million doallr homes on Bedford Avenue

  13. Jewish Observer says:

    ““This is an amazing symbol of the malchus shel chesed [government of kindness] that is this great country.” It was indeed hard to not be impressed.”

    – to my ear, “malchus shel chesed” should evoke being grateful, not impressed

  14. Micha Berger says:

    “I have always been struck by the inescapable contrast between, on the one hand, the public, potent pageantry and glitter with which the surrounding culture celebrates its winter holiday and the quiet, home-bound nature of Chanukah…”

    It only seems that way because we only see the holiday through its spectacles. The pagentry is what catches the eye of the outsider. We don’t have news reporters covering the Jones’ Family Christmas Dinner. It’s clear that the typical Christian also wants to spend his holiday with family — both nuclear and extended.

  15. HILLEL says:

    Rabbi Shafran gives us an insight into the seductive nature power and those who get close to it.

    It is easy to see how one can lose his normally-sound judgment when he is wined and dined by kings and presidents.

    When in the company of royalty it’s always a challenge for representatives of the Jewish commnuity to maintain their equilibrium and adhere to their Torah principles.

  16. joel rich says:

    Don’t worry R’ Avi – by the time your hagiography comes out you will have lit candles at home and have experienced kfitzat haderech (mystical beaming? :-) ) to get to the white house in time :-)

    KT