Our Hanukkah at the White House
Rabbi Baruch A. Yehudah
On December 13th at 9:45 PM I boarded the plane bound for Washington, DC because the next day I had been invited by Chief Rabbi Funnye to join him, his wife, and their grandchildren to attend the eighth and final Hanukkah celebration at the Obama White House. As I arrived in DC and began the cab ride to the hotel it dawned on me how I was passing through history as the monuments, the Capitol, and the picturesque and ornamented federal buildings surrounded me. Neither the irony nor the accomplishment was lost on me that many of those same historical places had been built by slaves, and I was going to visit the White House where the first African American held the office of President of the United States.
The next morning, after a sleep that I suppose was too comfortable, I got out of bed and had breakfast with the Chief Rabbi and his family, and then we immediately went back to the hotel to prepare for this momentous occasion. Upon arrival at the White House we fell in line with the hundreds of invitees as we passed through the checkpoints. (One lady almost was thrown out as she announced to the Secret Service that she was going to be a problem; it was quite amusing). We entered the East Wing of the White House and were immediately greeted by the opulence of the historic home of ‘the people’. After passing the cloak room we could hear the chorus that we later found out was the Choral Ensemble of Princeton University. Once upstairs a military band was playing and the party itself was held in the East Wing Hall between the East Room and the formal dining room. I thought that I would feel a sense of awe as I crossed the threshold of the White House however, I did not. Perhaps it was because we were being escorted so quickly to our destination that I did not have time to take it all in.
Hundreds of people were gathered in the East Room awaiting the arrival of the President and the First Lady. While waiting, the guests were socializing and enjoying the fine appointments of the White House. The buffet in the dining room was exquisite, but much to my surprise there were no potato latkes and applesauce.
We went back to the East Room as the arrival of the President and First Lady was imminent. As people jockeyed for position in the room my height worked to my advantage and I had a clear view of the stage. Just then the announcement came…”Ladies and Gentlemen, the President of the United States and Mrs. Michelle Obama”. As they took their place on the stage it all came together in my head, the White House, the trappings, the history; their presence. The room went from a loud roar to silence in an instant. The President Obama’s speech was inspiring and warm.
No sooner than the President had finished, Major in the Army who was part of the White House contingency came to get me. I didn’t know what he wanted as his directive to follow him right now was commanding. He led me, Kaleb Funnye, Jordian Dickerson and Zion Dickerson, the Funnye’s grandchildren, to the Blue Room where we were joined shortly by the Chief Rabbi. Then the highlight of the day, a different Major came in and said, “The President and Mrs. Obama will be in shortly”. We were all excited as we were given the rules of how to deal with this meeting. Then I heard President Obama’s voice as he came from the Green Room, and then he said “hey Michelle, Capers is here”. They went on to greet the Chief Rabbi and the children. When the President came to me and shook my hand I was affected by his presence. His dignity and sincerity was palpable. I managed to tell him, “G-D bless you sir and we thank you for your service and the dignity you have provided this country”, for which he graciously thanked me and then like a normal guy slapped my shoulder and said lets take this picture. As if that weren’t enough, the First Lady came extended her hand and as I took her hand she gave me a very warm hug as if we had been friends; I was humbled by their grace.
It is noteworthy that as the President passed staffers, including the wait staff he knew their names and was very personal, no airs or arrogance whatsoever. The staff that we spoke to made it very clear that they were going to miss the President and the Mrs. Obama simply because they are nice people.