I went to a Hanukkah party with my brothers and sister-in-law at the White House last week. And all I could think about was, what would my late grandmother think of this?
My nana came over on a boat from Russia when she was 12 with her younger brother. She was deeply in love with America and the freedoms that it offered not only to her fellow Jews, but to everyone.
But it would never have occurred to her that the president of the United States of America would observe the holiday of Hanukkah with two parties and serve latkes (strictly kosher, yet) to hundreds of Jews, and that, among those Jews, would be all three of her Shirley’s children. I think we were the only three-sibling delegation enjoying the Mar-ine Chamber Or-chestra’s rendition of “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
My mother tells a story about my nana. When a Chinese family bought a house across the street in Troy, N.Y., in the 1940s, another neighbor circulated a petition to try to keep them from moving in. My grandmother refused to sign. “You’re not an Indian,” she said. “Your people came over on boats, just like I did, and just like the new family did. We are all Americans.”
Michelle Obama’s people came on boats, too. Last December, I stood in Cape Coast Castle in Ghana and saw where her people were kept before they were put on boats in chains to come to America by no choice of their own. This month, I stood and watched the first lady of the United States, a descendant of slaves, appreciate my brother’s full-bellied laugh at her husband’s not-so-funny joke. A black man as president? I’m pretty sure that would be as surprising as the Hanukkah party to my nana.
Even though the time for lighting Hanukkah candles had passed (the party was on the eighth day of Hanukkah), there was a symbolic candlelighting in a Statue of Liberty centennial menorah designed by Manfred Anson, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939. The candlelighting was led by Rabbi Amanda Lurer, a Navy lieutenant. A female rabbi serving in the Navy — something else that would surprise my nana, but that my daughters take for granted.
President Obama said one thing that resonated with me. “As the Festival of Lights draws to a close,” he said, “let’s take one last chance to think about all the miracles we’ve been lucky enough to experience in our own lives. There are small miracles, like the invention of the Menurkey. And then there are big miracles like the chance to be a part of this great country.” My nana would understand that sentiment exactly.
Before and after the president’s brief appearance, guests were welcome to wander the public rooms of the East Wing and enjoy the displays of White House china, the portraits of the presidents and first ladies, and the library with presidential biographies and ceremonial swords. The buffet was generous and, in addition to applesauce-dolloped latkes, offered lamp chops, grilled vegetables and sushi. Northern California was well represented at the bar where they were pouring Hagafen wine and He’brew ale, in addition to top-shelf spirits. The men were mostly in suits, the women in black dresses.
When the party was over, my brother Ken took me to another party at the Library of Congress hosted by member of Congress Debbie Wasserman Schultz. We were treated to another round of latkes, and I stood and stared at the beautiful ceiling of this cathedral to books. I snuck a peek at a Gutenberg Bible on the way to the ladies’ room.
There was a special exhibit of books of the Hebrew Bible, including a 15th-century copy of Kimchi’s commentary on Psalms. Whole lines of the commentary had been blacked out. Some of Kimchi’s comments were deemed heretical by the Italians censors of the 1500s. This was when they decided to stop burning books and censor them instead.
And I took a moment to marvel that Betty Kaplan’s grandchildren found themselves in the capital of a country where anyone can say whatever they want about the Bible, where proud Jews are elected to the legislature, where women are rabbis, and the president throws Hanukkah parties. And for just a few seconds, I was able to forget everything that needs changing in the country and just repeat what my late father said every time he paid his taxes.
It is a privilege to be a citizen of the United States of America.
Ellen Bob is the executive director of Congregation Etz Chayim in Palo Alto. She is the younger sister of Ken Bob and Rabbi Steven Bob. Ellen and her mother, Shirley, owned bob and bob Fine Jewish Gifts, Crafts and Books in Palo Alto for 26 years.