President Donald Trump hosts the 2019 Chanukah reception at the White House. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta) (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
White House Chanukah

“Ironically, the president who first paid attention to Chanukah was Jimmy Carter, although he wasn’t the Jewish community’s favorite Democratic candidate,” notes American Jewish History Professor Jonathan D. Sarna.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

President Donald Trump hosted two Chanukah receptions at the White House on Wednesday, telling his guests, “I just want to wish everybody a very happy Chanukah.”

The two receptions for about 150 people were held indoors, but one attendee told the New York Post: “The Secret Service made sure everyone wore their masks unless eating or drinking … they were very concerned about COVID, and the guest list was cut way back from the usual 400-plus.”

On the menu was “a lavish kosher meal” by the White House chef, including two kinds of latkes. Two bands entertained the guests, with some gwearing red Trump yarmulkes and hats that read “Build Israel Great Again,” the Post reported.

The White House only started celebrating Chanukah in the late 1970s, and although America gained its independence in 1776, the first White House Christmas party was held 24 years later by President John Adams, a modest affair for only a few selected government officials and their children,wrote  American Jewish History Professor Jonathan D. Sarna of Brandeis University on the Brandeis website.

While lighting the White House Christmas tree is a big event now, the first lighting was only in 1923 under President Calvin Coolidge who also gave the first formal presidential Christmas message.

The first official notice of Chanukah by a sitting president wasn’t until 1979, “by which time Jews had become much more visible as members of American society and government,” Sarna wrote.

“Ironically, the president who first paid attention to Chanukah was Jimmy Carter, although he wasn’t the Jewish community’s favorite Democratic candidate. When he ran for reelection in 1980, he got less than 50% of the Jewish vote – less than any Democrat since 1928,” Sarna noted.

During the Iran crisis in 1979, when Iranian students attacked the U.S. embassy in Tehran and held 52 diplomats and American citizens hostage, Carter lit a large Chanukah candelabrum in Lafayette Park, dubbed the “National Menorah,” and was the first president to make a Christmas speech directed only “to those of our fellow citizens who join us in the joyous celebration of Christmas.”

Since then, Sarna notes, every president has held a ceremony to light Chanukah candles, and the presidential Christmas messages are only directed to those who actually observe the holiday.

President George H.W. Bush in 1989 became the first president to display a Chanukah menorah in the White House, a gift from the Synagogue Council of America, and President Bill Clinton was the first president to actually light a menorah in the White House in 1993.

“The event made headlines when six-year-old Ilana Kattan’s ponytail dipped into the flame and a wisp of smoke was visible around her head. Clinton was reported to have gently rubbed her ponytail with his fingers,” Sarna wrote.

Clinton lit candles but did not hold any official Chanukah party at the White House. President George W. Bush held the first one in 2001, making it a point that the White House “belongs to people of all faiths.”

With Bush setting the precedent, a Chanukah reception has become an official White House tradition, with the menu becoming completely kosher in 2005.

“What is truly significant, however, is how much America has changed since Presidents John Adams and Calvin Coolidge invented America’s White House Christmas traditions and paid no attention to Chanukah at all,” Sarna said.

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