The morning of Dec. 9 started out inauspiciously enough. But by midafternoon that Wednesday, I was gritting my teeth and rolling my eyes, and not just because it was deadline day. No, it was when the first selfies from my friends at the White House Hanukkah parties started showing up in my Facebook feed.
A D.C. tradition since 2001, the White House Hanukkah invite is the hottest ticket in town for the Jewish community. Everyone who’s anyone on the Jewish Hill is there, from the three MOT Supreme Court justices to big-name politicos, rabbis and media figures.
And then there are the other folks, the ones in my Facebook feed. There was M.W., complete with bowtie, pretending to shoot his own picture but really focusing on Barack and Michelle behind him. There was E.K., not only at both the afternoon and the evening parties, but arm-in-arm with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz at the Library of Congress after-party. Just to rub it in.
Most prolific of all was S.R., who sent a series of selfies posing before the official portraits of first ladies past and present. I looked at her in her long black dress and red kimono, and I thought — well, first I thought she looked every bit as elegant as Jackie Kennedy up on the wall behind her.
And then I thought … what do I have to do to get invited to this shindig? I’m a nice person. I have a black dress and a red kimono. Other editors of Jewish community publications get to go (I’m talking to you, Rob and Marshall). I comfort myself with assurances that my invitations must be getting lost in the mail. But I’ve been living at the same address for eight years.
The White House Hanukkah parties engender envy, that can’t be denied. They also subvert the usual tradition of December envy, which Jews direct toward Christmas.
Let’s be realistic: Hanukkah would barely be a holiday if it weren’t for Christmas; it’s our people’s way of bellying up to the yuletide bar and showing that we, too, have yichus. But the dreidel, the flimsy bags of chocolate gelt and the pitiful collection of Hanukkah tunes cannot hope to measure up to the glitter and grandeur of their Christmas counterparts. The tree! Handel’s Messiah! The Nutcracker! The roast beef and plum pudding!
This year, the holidays did not overlap. That’s good and bad. When they fall at the same time, Hanukkah can ride on Christmas’ coattails — most municipal street decorations, for example, will make modest gestures toward the Jewish holiday, throwing in the odd blue-and-white menorah amid the trumpeting angels and jolly snowmen.
On the other hand, the Jewish symbols can’t help but look like an afterthought. Which, let’s face it, they are.
When Hanukkah falls way before Christmas, as it did this year, Jews can focus all their joy on the menorah and latkes, undistracted. And that’s good. We can also surprise non-Jews, who may come across our public menorah lightings before they’ve even started their Christmas shopping. Ha! We win.
This year I surprised myself when I stumbled across the menorah lighting in Walnut Creek, right outside Macy’s. I was on my way to return a sweater — buying and returning, my own personal way of shopping — when I saw Rabbi Dovber Berkowitz and his wife, Chaya, busily setting up the party at about
3 p.m. “Come back in an hour!” the rabbi shouted at me, beaming.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, J. had publicized the Bay Area’s many open-air menorah lightings that week, as we do every year. But I wasn’t thinking about it at that moment, and when I looked up suddenly and saw the tall menorah waiting to be lit, I felt a surge of pride. And happiness.
I came back after the sun had set. Several hundred people had gathered, and the scent of fresh sufganiyot — jam-filled Israeli doughnuts — was in the air. A flaming torch rose up, high against the night sky, to light the shamash, or “attendant” candle, and then moved on to the right-hand side of the menorah to light the first candle of the holiday.
As the flame moved higher, and then surged heavenward when it made contact with the candle, the crowd roared its approval. We all sang along with the first-night blessings before launching into a rousing rendition of “Ma’oz Tzur.”
The White House partiers? They had nothing on us.
Sue Fishkoff is the editor of J. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.