The Passover Seder that the Obamas hosted Thursday night at the White House had many of the hallmarks that have defined it for years — the Maxwell House Haggadahs, the glass kiddush cup the first lady received in 2009 from a rabbi in Prague and bottles of Manischewitz wine. But there was also something new at the plate of each guest: a thin, cream-colored, spiral-bound booklet with photographs from previous celebrations on the left and recipes for some of the Passover dishes that the participants have shared on the right.
What began as a hastily arranged holiday observance in the basement of a Sheraton hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., in 2008 has become a White House tradition. But this Seder was the last one of Obama’s presidency.
The Obamas, and the people who work for them, have entered a series of lasts. For two-term presidents, this is a period that’s expected — often with dread but occasionally with anticipation because of the opportunity for experimentation that comes with it. For presidents who serve just one term, they may have no idea that they’ve even entered it.
Some presidents and first ladies have not left easily. Theodore Roosevelt’s wife, Edith, took more than half a dozen statues of female dancers from the White House to Sagamore Hill in New York, according to White House Historical Association historian William Seale. She also exhumed all the pets they had buried on the complex’s grounds because they “disliked the Tafts.”
Anita McBride, who served as Laura Bush’s chief of staff and under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said first couples are keenly aware of the ticking clock once they make it past a first term.
“In some ways, the entire four years of the second term is guided by the sense that this is the last opportunity to get it all done and that you’ve left nothing unfinished,” she said.
Cody Keenan, the president’s chief speechwriter, said that while Obama’s “never bit his tongue,” he has urged aides to be more adventurous. “He encourages us now with every speech to ‘push the envelope as far as you can — if I think it’s too far, I’ll rein it back a little bit.’ But he has no interest in half-measures or moderated language.”
Still, parts of the job have a more personal, nostalgic feel.
In an interview with “Entertainment Tonight” last month, Michelle Obama explained that she decided to include Sasha and Malia in the state dinner for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife because it might amount to their last chance.
“We generally don’t include the girls. We tried to normalize their lives as much as possible,” she said. “But I realized that they hadn’t been to a state dinner. I thought, when I look back on this time, when they are talking to their kids and they are like, ‘Mom, did you ever go to a state dinner?’ and they say no, I would feel pretty bad about that. So we thought, ‘We’re going to invite them to one.’ And they got to do the big-girl dress-up thing.”
Most of the social events the first family hosts are ones that presidents and their wives have thrown for decades — the Easter Egg Roll, the congressional picnic and an extensive round of holiday parties. But the Seder is different.
Three young aides — Eric Lesser, Arun Chaudhary and Herbie Ziskend, whose jobs in 2008 were luggage wrangling, videography and advance work for Obama’s campaign — decided to celebrate Passover with a Seder even though they were on the trail and their candidate faced the prospect of losing the Pennsylvania primary. Lesser briefly mentioned the gathering at one point to Obama, who showed up with his friends Valerie Jarrett and Eric Whitaker.
Just as the Obamas had to adjust to hosting massive social events at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., Lesser, Chaudhary and Ziskend had to master holding a Seder there. There were some mishaps in the early days, including the time that everyone was seated when they realized no one had matches. (“We prepare now, and we have a checklist,” Ziskend said.) When Neil Cohen, husband of the first lady’s then-chief of staff, Susan Sher, tried to bring macaroons from Chicago into the White House, the Secret Service got involved. (With an assist from Reggie Love, the president’s body man at the time, the macaroons made it inside.)
The Obamas and their aides had to scramble in similar ways right after their arrival, recalled former deputy social secretary Ebs Burnough. While planning their first black-tie event, the governor’s ball in February 2009, Burnough and his boss, Desirée Rogers, realized at the last minute that the china they selected lacked enough tea cups. They didn’t know, he recalled, “there’s a china book somewhere in the White House that tells you, with relative accuracy, what sets of china actually have all the pieces.”
For the most part, the group of roughly 20 participants has remained true to a fairly simple Reform Jewish ceremony that they started eight years ago. They still use the 1930s-era coffee maker’s Haggadah, even though plenty of people have suggested that they use something fancier or more politically correct. They replace them every year (people tend to take them), and Ziskend became so panicked last year that he ordered 30 from Amazon.com and 30 more from eBay, which is why he had 60 stacked on his desk at the D.C.-based investment firm Revolution this week.
Sara Netanyahu, wife of Israel’s prime minister, gave the Obamas a silver Passover plate in 2013, replacing the one Chaudhary’s mother-in-law, Jane Moser, had proudly provided for the entire first term. Mercifully, Netanyahu’s gift went into storage after that one meal.
“Jane Moser’s Seder plate is back in regular rotation, restoring order to my world,” Chaudhary said.
The change that is most visible now takes place before the meal begins, when former and current White House aides bring their children in for photos with the Obamas. Chaudhary’s wife, Laura Moser, was so far along in her pregnancy during the first White House Seder that Sasha Obama asked her mother if she was going to give birth right then; their son, Leo, is now about to turn 7, while their daughter, Claudia, is 3. Lesser was single during that dinner, in 2009, but is now a state senator in Massachusetts with a 21/2-year-old daughter of his own, Rose.
And while the Obama daughters, Sasha and Malia, have come most years, on occasion they’ve missed it, meaning the next-youngest guest must perform the traditional role of hunting for the hidden matzo known as the afikomen.
“Sending someone like Herbie Ziskend to look for the afikomen on the State Floor is pretty funny,” said Michelle Obama’s deputy chief of staff, Melissa Winter, who has attended every Seder since 2009. Because the Obamas’ daughters did not attend this year, Jarrett’s daughter Laura — a grown lawyer from Chicago — did the hunt.
No one is exactly sure whether the next president will hold a Seder or whether the Obamas will observe Passover once they leave the White House. Sen. Bernie Sanders, the only Jewish presidential contender this year, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” last weekend that he was too busy to celebrate it, though Chaudhary, who works as his creative director, said he is confident it would continue if the senator from Vermont managed to win in November.
The topic came up during Thursday’s dinner, according to Lesser, and was “left open.” It was broached not at the outset but well before the final line that Jews utter in homes across the world each spring, “Next year in Jerusalem!” In 2008, Barack Obama changed the line to “Next year in the White House!” And at the time he said it, Lesser recalled, there was “a sort of feeling that everything was about to change, very dramatically. For all of us, though especially for him.”
This year’s event had that same sensation, marking an end rather than a beginning.
To prepare the Obama family members for the next stage of their lives, the three young men gave them a “Seder in a box,” similar to the starter kit they used back in 2008. It has a kiddush cup, affikomen cover, haggadahs, copies of the Emancipation Proclamation and even some of the campaign luggage tags Lesser retained from “that fateful trip to Pennsylvania,” as Chaudhary put it.
The Obamas reacted with “amusement,” Lesser said. “It was a good touchstone for retelling the story, which we love to retell.”
Like Passover itself, in a sense.