Presidential Passovers

The link between the holiday and the US presidency began with George Washington.

Jewish homes illustration 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: David Geffen, ‘American Heritage Haggada)
Jewish homes illustration 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: David Geffen, ‘American Heritage Haggada)
On April 9, 2009, US President Barack Obama hosted a Seder at the White House. It was the first time an incumbent president had ever done so. Around the table with him and his family were the staff, friends and their families who, a year earlier, had been on the campaign trail with then-senator Obama on the first night of Passover.
At Obama’s insistence they had held an impromptu Seder, and at his invitation have celebrated together at the White House both years since.
Although these presidential Seders are a first for the White House – and although they follow presidential proclamations in honor of Passover by George W. Bush and Bill Clinton – the link between the holiday and the US presidency began over 200 years earlier, with George Washington.
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Passover 1778 was a difficult time in the struggling American republic. In Valley Forge, where Gen. George Washington and his troops had taken up winter quarters, the scene was one of misery and desolation. The cold was extreme and the army was ragged and hungry. Philip Moses Russell of Richmond, Virginia, was a volunteer field medic in that army, a dedicated patriot and a declared Jew.
As the “winter of despair” ended and Passover approached, Russell begged some matza from relatives in Philadelphia. On Seder night, Washington came across the field medic and questioned him about his unfamiliar field rations.
Russell explained to the general that he was eating matza, and told the future president: “Just as the Hebrews of old were led to freedom by Moses, so you will lead us to liberty from the British tyrants.”
ONE HUNDRED years after Washington was inaugurated president, New York Jewish merchants marked his centenary by offering a free picture of Washington with every 10 pounds of matza purchased. New York’s chief rabbi, Yaakov Yosef, wrote a special prayer to be read in all synagogues for the anniversary.
Passover 1865 fell at the time of another milestone of American history. The festival began on the day of Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomatox, Virginia, the formal end of five bloody years of civil war. Days later, however, events took a tragic turn: on the Friday night of Passover, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the Ford Theater in Washington.
America’s Jews no less than its blacks venerated Lincoln as their liberator. It was he who had allowed rabbis to serve as military chaplains and he who had rescinded Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s expulsion order of Jews during the Civil War. News of his murder spread rapidly.
In Philadelphia, Isaac Leeser, author, translator, editor, publisher and lay minister, walked home from Friday night dinner in tears. In San Francisco, Rabbi Elkan Cohn received the news as he stepped up to the Sutter Street Synagogue pulpit to deliver his sermon. Visibly moved, he prayed: “Who might believe it! Our revered president Abraham Lincoln, the twice-anointed high priest in the sanctuary of our Republic, has fallen a bloody victim to treason and assassination, and is no more. He, who by the indomitable power of his energy, stood amidst us like a mighty giant, holding with his hands the tottering columns of our great commonwealth and planting them secure upon the common basis of general freedom and humanity… is no more among the living… He whose life was a blessing to us, to our country and to the oppressed and afflicted, and to the human race at large.”
Thirty-five presidents and 97 years later, John F. Kennedy came through for Orthodox US Jews. In 1962, the special wheat flour needed for shmura matza was in short supply and importation of necessary quantities was prohibited under the US Wheat Program then in force. In response to a request from the Jewish community, the president issued Proclamation 3449 in February, permitting “Imports of Shmurah Wheat Flour for Religious Purposes.”
PRESIDENT OBAMA was the first US president to host a Seder, but not the first to attend one. Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, were Seder guests of chief domestic policy adviser and executive-director of the White House Domestic Policy Staff, ambassador Stuart E. Eizenstat and his wife, Fran. It was, according to the Eizenstats, a “memorable” Seder.
“When we came to the part when I was to pour the cup of wine and welcome the Prophet Elijah, I got up to open the front door,” Eizenstat recalls. “A Secret Service agent immediately jumped up and stopped me. For security reasons, he said, the door could not be opened and my entreaties failed to move him.
As a compromise, I persuaded him to let me open our rear door – the only time Elijah has ever been relegated to the back door in my home!”