The president’s Passover guest list changes a bit each year, though it always numbers around 20. Jarrett, who remains one of Obama’s top advisers, comes most years, as does State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki. They still use Haggadahs first produced in the 1930s by Maxwell House coffee (Wiesel quipped he’s “so disappointed” they don’t read from the version he penned), and Ziskend still hides a piece of matzoh, the Afikomen, every year so Sasha and Malia Obama can hunt for it.
“My strategy is just to find a creative place and hope the Secret Service doesn’t give any hints,” Ziskend explained.
The White House ceremony in the Old Family Dining Room does have a distinctly presidential feel to it: The participants eat on the Truman china, in tribute to the first president to recognize the state of Israel, and read the Emancipation Proclamation after they’ve finished recounting the Passover story.
The menu is less formal than the setting. It includes family recipes the White House chef prepares. This year it will include matzoh ball soup, brisket, kugel, meringue with raspberry ganache and, most likely, vegetables from the White House garden. Lesser always offers up his mother’s carrot souffle, while Ziskend contributes roast chicken recipes from both of his grandmothers, so as not to favor one.
Old friends reconnect
When the rite began, all three men were in their early 20s and unmarried, and their lives revolved around Barack Obama. Now two of them are married — Chaudhary has two kids, while Lesser’s wife is pregnant — and none of them work for Obama anymore. Lesser is in his second year at Harvard Law School, Chaudhary works for the progressive communications firm Revolution Messaging, and Ziskend works at the D.C.-based investment firm Revolution LLC. (The companies are unrelated.)
As a result, those gathered around the table will likely spend the beginning part of the dinner catching up. Jarrod Bernstein, who served as the White House Jewish liaison from October 2011 to February and attended last year’s Seder, recalled that “like every Seder, there’s a moment where you have to bring the table back to order.”
Bernstein, who will observe Passover with his wife, 2½-year-old son Jake and in-laws, said the White House ritual has already changed how he celebrates the holiday with his relatives. They now read the Emancipation Proclamation at the end, and Bernstein said the way Obama teaches his daughters about the Haggadah “will influence how I will be teaching my son about Passover one day.”
When the three young men who started the White House tradition have suggested altering aspects it — Chaudhary raised the prospect one year of not doing his Hillel sandwich routine — Obama has balked.
“You gotta make the speech,” he recalled the president telling him. “The speech is your thing.”
Even though the president’s reelection has given the ritual a new lease on life, they also now can predict when it will end.
“I have not reflected on what happens in 2017,” Ziskend said, pausing for a moment. “Maybe we’ll do it in Jerusalem.”