A White House list with all the trimming
Coveted invitations to Hanukkah party spur some serious lobbying

By Michelle Boorstein
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hanukkah is nearly here, which means one thing in elite Jewish Washington: Watch your inbox.

With news leaking out that the prestigious White House Hanukkah party will have a guest list half the size of last year's, people around town are lobbying even more than usual for an invitation prized by Jewish politicians, diplomats, community leaders, donors and celebrities.

"Is there jockeying? Oh my God, jockeying is a polite word," said Steve Rabinowitz, a veteran political consultant for Democratic and Jewish groups who worked for President Bill Clinton. Rabinowitz, who hasn't been to a White House party since the start of the Bush years, knows how much people covet invitations to social events at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., regardless of the occasion.

The White House is sending out save-the-date e-mails this week for the Dec. 16 party, but the Jerusalem Post reported late last month that the 800-person affair President George W. Bush hosted would be more like 400 people. The reasons, the newspaper reported, were a desire to be modest in a recession, the high cost of kosher food and a wish to let the party grow over time.

While the White House wouldn't confirm any details about the party, the Jewish press is already debating the significance of the reportedly condensed guest list.

Some argue that the decrease in invitations reflects a diminished status of Jews -- and Israel -- in the Obama administration, while others call such analysis embarrassing kvetching. Even the fact that the party is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. instead of later in the evening is prompting some grumbling, though dusk has more religious significance as the traditional time to light candles.

"One wonders if there is more to this reduction than the reasons given by the administration," Tevi Troy, who handled Hanukkah parties for Bush in the mid-2000s, wrote last week in an op-ed published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wire service titled "Obama Must Beware the Chanukah Snub." Troy then went on to mention tension between the Obama administration and Israel over Israeli settlements and the White House's honoring of several Israel critics. "While the size of the party may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, even some of Obama's supporters may see it in the context of this longer train of politically tone-deaf decisions."

But Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, dismissed any larger meaning to the size of the party and said it was unseemly to be griping about the number of people invited to a gala in the midst of a recession.

Even if the White House doesn't cut the guest list, there are bound to be disappointed Democrats who don't make the cut to eat latkes with the commander in chief. For a community that votes about 80 percent Democratic, the first Hanukkah party of the Obama era represents the social reemergence of a people who have wandered for eight long years in the political wilderness.

Forman, who is getting an invitation, said he's been warned by multiple GOP operatives that "the most important thing I do all year" will be trying to secure holiday party tickets for prominent Jewish Democrats.

The guest selection is undoubtedly more difficult for Obama than Bush, with so many more Democrats who are Jewish. And there's plenty of speculation among Jewish activists about who's in and who's out: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's rabbi? The head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington -- or of Chicago, the president's home town? The head of a major Jewish organization who cuddled up with Sarah Palin? Any chance comic and Obama supporter Sarah Silverman will be there?

While previous presidents hosted menorah lightings or small get-togethers, it was Bush who established the Hanukkah party as a political and social phenomenon. During the eight years of his presidency, the party grew progressively larger, with the Marine Corps band playing Hanukkah music, photos with the president and kosher food.

After a mix-up in 2005 resulted in some Orthodox Jews eating un-kosher lamb chops, Laura Bush arranged for the entire White House kitchen to be ritually cleaned and declared kosher by religious authorities, said Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the Washington representative of the international Chabad Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic orthodox group.

The lamb chop incident was the closest thing to a White House Hanukkah scandal since 1993, when the ponytail of a 6-year-old girl caught fire at a menorah lighting. Clinton, the first president to light a menorah in the White House, snuffed out the fire with his hands.

Shemtov, who helped Bush make the White House kosher and was at each one of her Hanukkah parties, said each year he gets about 100 calls from people who hope he can help them get in to the party.

Even for those with connections, the Hanukkah party can be a tough ticket to score. All 40 Jewish members of Congress get invited -- 37 Democrats, two independents who caucus with the Democrats and Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the lone Jewish Republican -- and their spouses. Add prominent Jews in government and at foreign embassies, heads of major Jewish organizations and schools, and a few favorite rabbis, and it's easy to see how quickly 400 tickets can disappear.

To Shemtov, who said he is getting an invitation to the White House, the high-profile party has a spiritual significance.

Hanukkah, he said, is the only holiday when Jews are instructed by the Talmud to publicly celebrate the miracle behind the story, which is the victory of the Jews over their oppressors in the 2nd century, the victory of light over darkness.

"That's the whole point," he said, "so I'm not going to kvetch about tickets."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company