As I learned last week as one of many starry-eyed invitees to one of two official Chanukah parties thrown Dec. 9 by President and Mrs. Obama, the White House, while grand, isn’t all that big. When you get right down to it, it’s a house, not a palace. And, as befits a house built by the people for a president whose unique contribution to government theory is that he is not a king, its grandeur emanates not from its size, but from its history.
Call me jaded or idealistic — I’ll freely admit that I’m probably both — but on that night last week, as Holocaust survivor Manny Lindenbaum and his granddaughter Lauren lit a menorah made from nails scavenged by another survivor, Erwin Thieberger, at Auschwitz, I was humbled not by President Obama before me, but by the office he represents. It was the history of the house, of the country, of the presidency, of the fact that we live in a nation where a menorah can be lit and publicly celebrated from the East Room of the presidential mansion that rendered me speechless.
History happened to feature prominently in each of Obama’s speeches that Wednesday, as it did in the remarks of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the president’s special invitee at the afternoon party.
“It’s no accident that when we’re called out to speak on behalf of refugees or against religious persecution, American Jews remember what it was like to be a stranger, and are leading the way,” Obama said before introducing Rivlin. “And even as we draw from the best of our traditions, we’re never afraid to build on what came before and to forge a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”
For his part, Rivlin invoked a teaching of Rabbi Abraham Heschel to draw inspiration from the light of a menorah.
Heschel “wrote in his book, Insecurity of Freedom, that people usually follow the path of regression. They begin high and fall down,” said Rivlin. “But instead, we should be like the Chanukah candles and follow the path of progression.”
Downstairs, on the ground floor, those leaving stopped to look at two historic menorahs on display. One of them was a family heirloom belonging to Jeanette Eichenwald of Allentown. It was taken to Dachau by her father and grandfather, and was used by them to celebrate Chanukah under the most oppressive of conditions. On the second night of the holiday that year, a Nazi guard found it and threw it into a fire, but another inmate found it and buried it, retrieving it years later.
“Now the menorah stays on Eichenwald’s mantle,” read an accompanying plaque, “a symbol of remarkable resolve in the face of evil. The menorah is still lit by the family every year.”