by JONATHAN NEUMANN
On the second night of Passover in April 2009, several White House staffers gathered in the Old Family Dining Room for a Seder Night, the Jewish ceremonial dinner that takes place on the first two evenings of the festival. It was not just the setting that made this night different from all other nights, but the host: President Barack Obama. Never before had a Seder taken place in the White House itself, and never in history had a sitting president ever attended, but from then on the Seder Night became an annual fixture in the presidential calendar over both of Obama’s terms.
Of all the many Jewish occasions that could have been adopted by the new president, why the Seder? Partly, it was sentimental: Obama had joined an impromptu Seder Night on the campaign trail the year before and had pledged a repeat of the event “Next year in the White House”. And partly, it was tactical: upon coming into office his administration had quickly soured relations with Israel, and some positive headlines in the Jewish press might confound critics and reassure the wider community, which had voted overwhelmingly for Obama in the election.
But the Seder also had a much deeper appeal. Obama was no stranger to this ritual – he had attended a Seder every year for the previous decade and understood its significance in the liberal imagination. The themes he invoked when he opened the first presidential Seder – universalism and the struggle for liberation – are at the core of an ideology with which he was intimately familiar: tikkun olam. In numerous speeches, the president declared how this Hebrew concept – healing the world – had “enriched and guided my life”. Now it would inspire his administration. From his nomination victory speech – which he described as “the moment our planet began to heal” – through the eight Passover Seders held during his tenure, this was the apotheosis of tikkun olam in America.
Excerpted from To Heal The World? How the Jewish Left Corrupts Judaism and Endangers Israel by Jonathan Neumann forthcoming from All Points Books/St. Martin's Press on June 26, 2018.
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