White House Seder Was Like No Other

A former intern sent a thoughtful message early Thursday.

“Hi Robin,” she said. “I hope you enjoy Passover. Will you be at the White House seder?”

Flattering as it is for a protege to suggest, even if kidding, that I’d make the invite list, I did not. Neither did Rabbi Capers Funnye, first cousin once removed to Michelle Obama, though he was otherwise occupied.

“I was leading a community seder for about 165 people,” Funnye said Friday while babysitting grandchildren in between spiritual leader duties at Chicago’s mostly black Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.

Not that he wouldn’t have changed his schedule in an instant if called.

“We were there for the inauguration. It was a super time,” said Funnye, 56, who has known the 44-year-old first lady since childhood. “I can’t tell you how special it was being with the family in the presidential reviewing stand for the inaugural.”

Testament of the gumbo, or cholent, that America’s melting pot has simmered into, it’s worth noting that the first rabbi to be related, or closely enough related, to a president is black. It’s similarly of note that an African American president is the first to host a seder – a festive meal commemorating the Jews’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt – in the White House.

Or maybe the first. An April 1979 Associated Press report tells of President Carter, a few days before attending a well-publicized Easter celebration at an all-black Baptist congregation, and his wife eschewing fanfare to appear unannounced for a seder at the home of Stuart Eizenstat, his domestic policy adviser. Carter got to read a passage from Isaiah prophesying peace between Egypt and Israel.

Then there are accounts of a White House seder during the Clinton administration, though the president seems not to have attended. I’m not about to speculate where he was.

News databases come up blank for any other president, so last Thursday night, at least for now, will remain different from all other nights in White House history. That’s not to say it was without political motivation. The seder followed candidate Obama’s participation in one last year, in which he ad-libbed the traditional closing line of “next year in Jerusalem” as “next year in the White House.”

He kept his campaign promise, and at the same time gave equal play to Jewish interests after a whirlwind foreign trip that in part concentrated on Muslim concerns.

Still, the idea of Jewish staffers gathered at the White House seder table with the first family does tug at emotional strings. I can remember being out of town or stuck working on a project somewhere on Jewish holidays with nowhere to go. And an extreme closeup photo reveals the president and others to be reading the Maxwell House Haggadot, as ordinary as at any family’s Passover observance.

Equally inspiring are Malia and Sasha Obama, obviously enjoying the service that at its essence celebrates all who have been delivered from oppression, an enduring link between African Americans and Jews.

And those who are both.

“It just broadens the scope of the presidency,” Funnye said. “The White House has always had an Easter egg hunt. As a Jew, I feel this is [symbolic of] his whole idea of inclusiveness.”

I met Funnye, incidentally, in 1990, the same year and in similar circumstances – producing and appearing on television shows about race – as I did Obama, then a Harvard law student. Obama and I spent the better part of a day together, and he even cut class to continue taping the show.

OK, that’s not good enough for an invitation to the first first seder, but maybe next year? in the White House?


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