Celebrate Passover with Recipes from the White House!

— by Max Samis

In preparation for the upcoming Passover holiday, President Barack Obama invited members of the Jewish community to the White House for a special cooking demonstration and discussion. Sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement and the National Endowment for the Humanities, White House chef Bill Yosses worked with Jewish chef Joan Nathan to demonstrate how to make, among other dishes, apple and pear charoset and matzo chremsel.

Haaretz writer Vered Guttman was one of the guests invited to the event. Guttman wrote:

Before the seder each year, guests are asked to send Bill and White House executive chef Cris Comerford their own family’s Passover recipes. The chefs then design a menu for the seder and prepare the dishes according to the guests’ recipes.

In previous years they served the classics: haroset and brisket. When we met Wednesday. Bill said they were still working on this year’s menu. He did know, however, which desserts would be served: A flourless chocolate cake (which he promises will be on the White House website before the holiday) and a delicious sounding apricot roll cake, that he was kind enough to share the recipe with me. Bill gets extra points for a dessert that is not only fabulous, but also inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine. Does the president eat Jewish or Israeli food during the year? I asked.

‘The president LOVES Israeli couscous!’ Bill didn’t have to think much before he answered. Since Israeli couscous is one of the most popular foods imported from Israel, it is often the target of boycott threats by anti-Israeli groups.

More after the jump.


Joan Nathan and Bill Yosses preparing haroset together at the White House. Photo by Vered Guttman

In addition to the President’s love of Israeli couscous, Guttman spoke with Yosses about other Israeli foods used in the White House. Guttman wrote:

Obama keeps a very open mind about food and likes to try new dishes, Bill told me. He added that the Israeli produce imported to the U.S. is known at the White House kitchen to be of highest quality and the chefs like to use Israeli vegetables and fruit. He could not tell me where they get their produce, as the White House chefs are instructed not to reveal their suppliers for security reasons.

As Joan began her demonstration, she told us that the Passover seder is the holiday most-observed by American Jews. Joan herself will host 44 guests at her house in Washington next week. ‘Nowhere in the world, except for Israel and the U.S., do Jews feel that comfortable,’ Joan said as she started her cooking demonstration.

It has been a tradition since the 2008 presidential campaign for the Obama family to host a private seder for their Jewish staffers. In a 2010 article in the New York Times, Jodi Kantor wrote about the seder’s roots in Pennsylvania and how it has grown. Kantor wrote:

One evening in April 2008, three low-level staff members from the Obama presidential campaign — a baggage handler, a videographer and an advance man — gathered in the windowless basement of a Pennsylvania hotel for an improvised Passover Seder.

Suddenly they heard a familiar voice. ‘Hey, is this the Seder?’ Barack Obama  asked, entering the room.

So begins the story of the Obama Seder, now one of the newest, most intimate and least likely of White House traditions. When Passover begins at sunset on Monday evening, Mr. Obama and about 20 others will gather for a ritual that neither the rabbinic sages nor the founding fathers would recognize.

As the White House seder grows in scope and tradition, American Jews can be proud that the President of the United States will once again be observing Passover in the White House.

Kol b’Seder: Obama’s Passover Wishes


The President called Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu today to convey his best wishes before the start of Passover.  Noting that he would host a seder at the White House, the President recalled that the story of Passover is one of liberation and freedom, and expressed his hope that the Israeli people would be able to celebrate in peace.  The two leaders also discussed U.S.-Israeli cooperation on counter-terrorism, how best to move forward in efforts to advance Middle East peace, and the recent violence near the Gaza strip.

Prime Minister Netanyahu expressed his deep appreciation for U.S. funding for the Iron Dome rocket and mortar defense system, which he noted has successfully intercepted several rockets aimed at Israeli communities.  The President congratulated the Prime Minister on this impressive Israeli technological achievement and expressed his pride that Israeli-American cooperation made it possible.  With the signing of the fiscal year 2011 budget appropriation, the President approved $205 million in U.S. funding for Iron Dome, which is above the annual package of Foreign Military Financing for Israel.

The President and the Prime Minister agreed to stay in close touch on the range of issues facing the United States and Israel.

Passover Greetings from the President to the Jewish Community and Comments from David Harris follow the jump.

President Barach Obama

My family and I send our warmest wishes to all those celebrating the sacred festival of Passover.

On Monday evening, Jewish families and their friends in America, Israel, and around the world will gather around the Seder table and retell the story of the Exodus, one of the most powerful stories of suffering and redemption in history. The story of Passover – which recalls the passage of the children of Israel from bondage and repression to freedom and liberty – inspires hope that those oppressed and enslaved can become free. The Seder, with its rich traditions and rituals, instructs each generation to remember its past, while appreciating the beauty of freedom and the responsibility it entails.

This year, that ancient instruction is reflected in the daily headlines as we see modern stories of social transformation and liberation unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa. Against the backdrop of change, we continue to pray for peace between Israel and her neighbors, while reaffirming our enduring commitment to Israel’s security.

As Jewish families gather for this joyous celebration of freedom, let us all be thankful for the gifts that have been bestowed upon us, and let us work to alleviate the suffering, poverty, injustice, and hunger of those who are not yet free. Chag Sameach.

David Harris (NJDC):

Tonight, as we gather at Passover seders throughout the world and remember our exodus from Egypt, recite the four questions and nosh on Passover delicacies, the First Family will be doing the same.

The Obama family will gather with some of their closest Jewish friends and several of the President’s most trusted Jewish advisors to celebrate the third annual White House Passover seder, which will be led by none other than President Barack Obama himself. Obama’s seders have garnered a reputation for following the traditions in the Haggadah, with every ritual of the seder being carried out (Sasha and Malia typically recite the four questions). Obama and the White House kitchen staff also make sure that the food served on the table would live up to your grandmother’s standards — even the gefilte fish. Above is a photo from last year’s seder.

Obama has been hosting Passover seders since his Presidential campaign and has made a point to keep the tradition going as President. All American Jews should take pride in knowing that our President deeply respects Jewish tradition — so much so that he and First Lady Michele Obama enthusiastically celebrate with us multiple times during the year, including during May — which has been designated as Jewish Heritage Month. And all of this is in addition to the intimate meetings that regularly occur between Obama and Jewish communal leaders — including leadership from an array of American Jewish organizations, including NJDC.

Thoughts for the Fast

It is a custom for firstborn Jews to fast on the day before Passover to commemorate the miracle by which firstborn Jews were saved from the plague which struck the firstborn Egyptians.

This year the fast falls on Monday, April 18. Let us take this fast of our choosing as an opportunity to share in the hardship of those who struggle through life, and do not have the means to feed themselves properly.

MoveOn is organizing a communal fast to protest the immoral budget cuts Republicans are pushing in Washington. 30,000 people including 28 Congressmen will be joining this fast.

Last week’s budget agreement-now public-contains cuts to critical programs but does little to make corporations and the rich pay their fair share.

More than half of the $38 billion in cuts target education, labor, and health programs.

The worst cuts and riders didn’t make it into the budget-but that was the Republican plan all along: propose the unthinkable, threaten to shut down the government, and then walk away with cuts that would have been beyond the pale just a few months ago.

Now Republicans are pushing a new round of proposals to abolish Medicare and make far deeper cuts to education, nutrition, health care, and other essential programs-while giving even bigger tax breaks to millionaires and corporations. And this time, after winning so much in the last round, the Republicans actually have a shot at getting every last cut they want.

We need to restore a moral dimension to the warped debate going on in Washington.

See video above for more information.

A letter from Abby J. Leibman of Mazon follows the jump.
— Abby J. Leibman, Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger

This Passover as you gather with family and friends to retell the story of our people’s freedom from bondage, please take a moment to consider those Americans who are still enslaved – to hunger.  

Hunger in America is at an epidemic level, despite how it might seem at first glance.

50 million Americans – including 17 million children – struggle with hunger every day.

That’s more than the entire population of Canada.

Hungry people live in every community in the country and come in all ages, colors, shapes and sizes. They wrestle with impossible choices no one should have to make: buy my daughter’s asthma medication or feed my family? Whose turn is it to eat: the children or the adults?  

It breaks our hearts – it should break yours.

There is another way – an end to hunger is within our reach.  Early in the seder we say, “All who are hungry, let them enter and eat.” More than an invitation to join us at the dinner table, we at MAZON see these words as a rallying cry:

  • …to do more to help those who so desperately need it;    
  • …to fight for responsible government policies that promote the health and security of everyone in our nation;    
  • …to provide access to resources that allow people to pick themselves up and build (or rebuild) their lives;    
  • …to give every man, woman and child a chance not only to live their lives, but to thrive.

Please join our fight.    

Chag Sameach,


Abby J. Leibman
President & CEO, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
 

Memories of Past Passovers

— Steve Hofstetter

This year my wife and I will be spending one seder at her mother’s and one at my mother’s, but in the future, we may be starting our own Passover traditions. And I admit, I am completely lost.

I began thinking about the Passovers I knew growing up, and how the holiday was the same every year. There’d be an occasional change in which random elderly cousin coughed a lot in the last seat, but from five to fifteen years old, I had twenty identical seders.

It would be unfair of me to expect that the seders my wife and I might throw in the future will involve just my traditions and not hers. So to help me think about which I’d like to keep (and entertain a few readers simultaneously), I wanted to recount the memories that most say Passover to me. I’d bet at least a few of these will remind you of your childhood, and help you determine what you’d like to keep, should you ever JDate your way to your own family.

More after the jump.
The holiday started with my mother spending hours cleaning the oven while listening to ads for Schmerling’s chocolate. We never bought any Schmerling’s, but I still remember the theme song. Maybe we never bought any because we always associated Schmerling’s with the smell of Easy Off.

What we did buy was lots of other candy. Our staples were ring jells, lollicones, those sugar covered fruit jellies that were in the shape of tiny pieces of watermelon, and a truck load of marshmallows. Passover was the only time of year where it was easy to find kosher marshmallows, so we bought every kind we could. My favorites were the chocolate covered pink bumpy marshmallows. The white ones were an acceptable substitute, but the pink ones were the real thing.

Preparing, we’d help my mother clean for as long as we had to before one of us came up with an excuse for why they shouldn’t clean. My mother would only fall for this briefly before we were right back scrubbing away. Perhaps my most important future Passover tradition will be a maid.

We’d know the seder was getting close when the cabinets and the fridge were all covered in paper, and my father finished making the charoset. My sister usually helped, mainly to sneak some wine.

As the seder approached, we distributed the Maxwell House haggadot, where the transliterated Hebrew was spelled out as if everyone had a Brooklyn accent. These haggadot are the tradition I miss the most, as my mother switched brands when I was in college. Part of what I miss is our teasing every time my mother would change the “He” and the “Him” to gender-neutral terms.

One of my sisters would speed read, my brother would keep us all on task of whose turn it was, I would substitute words to see if anyone was really listening, and my other sister would insist on reading in Hebrew, even though her Hebrew was as fluent as Moses’ English.

We also decided which child was which of the four sons, and were happy to play our parts, despite our mother’s constant protest that we were all the good child. That’s right, “child” and not “son.” Even the four sons had to be gender-neutral.

As the youngest, the four questions always fell on me – so I did my best to get through them with as few breaths as possible. We used celery for karpas, which led to my father making the same joke every year about how “it sounded like a Doritos factory.” To this day, I am sure my father never took a tour of a Doritos factory.

The meal was constant – egg soup, chicken soup (I guess the egg did come before the chicken), gefilte fish, salad with my mother’s Passover dressing, Dr. Brown’s everything, and then some sort of giant meat dish none of us had room for. The main thing that varied was who would find the afikomen, and how they would tease the others that missed out.

That was our main dynamic. My brother, one sister, and I cracking jokes, my father trying to join in, our elderly relatives watching quietly (except while coughing), my mother telling us to be more respectful, and my other sister echoing my mother. My parents are now divorced, three of the kids are married, and my sister can finally read fluent Hebrew, but my Passover memories are frozen in 1994. Though it’s been 17 years since we’ve all had a seder together, it’s hard for me to see Passover any other way.

I’m glad my wife and I are splitting our uncomfortable confusion equally this year. In the future, we will probably take a few traditions from each side to create our own holiday. And as long as that includes the pink bumpy marshmallows, I’m okay with that.

Steve Hofstetter is an internationally touring comedian who has been on VH1, ESPN, Comedy Central., and many more. To book him at your next event, visit SteveHofstetter.com.