by Carrie Bornstein
Chinese food. Movie theaters. The culmination of a season’s worth of reminders about our minority status around every corner. This year, I’m spending December 25th by telling you my Chanukah story (Christmas really fell out late this year, no?).
So there I was, casually pulling a pile from my mailbox, when I found a letter addressed to Aliza Kline, our founding executive director. Return address: The White House. Well isn’t that funny, I thought. These junk mail spammers are getting more sophisticated every day.
I took the liberty (pun somewhat intended) of opening it up. By golly, it appeared to be real.
So I did what any responsible person would do – I tucked it away for myself and never looked back. I swallowed my pride and sent it on to its rightful owner.
And then this happened:
Somewhat of a sacrifice, but instead of engaging in festive Cyber Monday celebrations, I spent the evening researching travel options for later that week and deciding what “holiday attire” meant.
You should know: while it is tempting, I am resisting the urge to act all nonchalant, as if attending Michelle and Barack Obama’s Chanukah party is a totally normal thing to do. I won’t lie: it was unbelievably fantastic.
After surviving three security checkpoints and one “I’m sorry, ma’am; but you’re not on the list,” we made it through and walked up to the southeast entrance. I will never forget the guard at the entrance greeting us with a smile and, “Good evening, ladies. Welcome to the White House.”
We wandered in and out of the rooms on the Ground Floor and up the staircase into the East Room, where I ate the traditional Chanukah fare of latkes and sushi. I met Larry David.
And Josh Malina.
I stood behind Ruth Bader Ginsburg and next to Elena Kagan. I learned about Nelson Mandela’s death from Barack Obama himself. And I shook his hand. I shook his hand! And I shook Michelle’s too.
Who am I??
As exciting as all this was, I also really enjoyed the ceremony itself. Granted, Chanukah had technically ended just as the party was getting started. We wondered how it would be handled. Would they light the menorah? Would they say the blessings?
Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, a military chaplain, explained that we would light the menorah and say two blessings, one about the miraculous capability to bring light to the darkness, with thanks to our leaders dedicated to strengthening religious freedom. And then the shehecheyanu, giving thanks for the blessing of life.
For those who were paying attention, it was clear that the usual first blessing thanking God for the commandment of kindling the Chanukah lights was omitted. A simple, tasteful acknowledgment that avoided unnecessary embarrassment. A creative way to take ownership of a traditional ritual, making it relevant for the moment. With this echo of exactly what we do at Mayyim Hayyim each day, despite feeling largely out of my element during the rest of the party, I suddenly felt very much at home.
That evening, surrounded by no fewer than 47 White House Christmas trees, I stood in wonder as I ate kosher lamb chops and sang Ma’oz Tzur. How good it is to be a Jew in America… I owe you one, Aliza.
Carrie Bornstein is Mayyim Hayyim’s Executive Director. Follow her on twitter @carolinering.