When I got invited to the White House to help the first family celebrate Hanukkah, I was a little nervous, as you can imagine. For one thing, I knew I’d have to write about it, and I can never remember how to spell Chanukah. Fortunately, research confirmed this would not be a problem: Because the word is a transliteration from a different alphabet, there are countless different spellings and they’re all technically correct! (Even the Maoist-sounding “Xanuka.” Seriously. You can look it up.) It’s like back in the 1960s when no one really knew how to spell Khrushchev, but it didn’t matter. You did the best you could, and if you threw an extra K or H in there, nobody was the wiser.
But there was another reason I was nervous about this invitation to the White House: What if the president and first lady were counting on me to guide them through the ceremony? I am not a knowledgeable Jew. I suspect I know less about being Jewish than the Obamas do. I once asked my Jewish friend Pat how many days of Chanukah there were. A long silence followed. I thought she was trying to remember, but it turns out she was trying to think if she actually knew anyone else, of any age or ethnic background, who didn’t know how many days of Chanuka there are, including Daryl, her cat.
In short, I feared that the Obamas and I would be sitting down to a traditional Jewish holiday meal of kreplach, tsimmis, baked katzfleisch, fried mazel, knacknistle, boiled schmendrick, pickled pishers, etc. — and Michelle would defer to me. Turning to her girls, she would say, “Mr. Weingarten is now going to tell us about the origins of this holy day and lead us in prayer,” and I would have to improvise: “Hanukka commemorates the time Moses and King David led the Israelites to victory over, uh, the fierce goyish hordes, a victory that is remembered today by ceremonially flushing a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich on white bread down the toilet. …”
But I hadn’t had to worry at all. It wasn’t that intimate a gathering. I discovered this when my wife and I arrived at the White House to find, literally halfway around the block, a line of Jewish people. How do I know they were all Jewish people? You just needed to eavesdrop on the conversations. This is verbatim from in front of me in line: “Phil, this is my daughter. The one who didn’t bother to tell me, so I had to hear from you, not God forbid from her, my daughter, that she was quoted on the radio this morning.”
Everything went splendidly, with one hitch.
Before you enter the White House you have to go through a TSA-type metal detector, which means you have to first surrender your cellphone and wallet and belt. This I did, and then got wanded — I have metal replacement knees, so my wanding takes a full minute or two as the guards try to determine whether I am potentially the Knee Bomber — and when they were through with me I saw that a couple of Secret Service agents were standing protectively, and a little nervously, over the container into which I had thrown my wallet. That is when I remembered that I do not have an ordinary wallet. My wallet was handmade for me, to my specifications, by my friend Tariiq Omari Walton. Carved into the leather, in bold letters, Samuel L. Jackson style, is this: Bad Mutha F----.
The agents were standing there, waiting a little warily, probably wondering what nature of person would pick up the wallet, and whether it would be someone about whom they needed to worry. When I showed up they looked at each other, then back at me, and burst out laughing.
I decided it was a sign of respect.
I don’t meant to brag, but not long afterward, President Obama personally welcomed me and my wife to the White House from up there at a lectern. And though he did not mention us by name, and there were 200 other people in the room, I felt the warmth. Though it might have been the kosher horseradish.
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