- Jimmy Carter was the first president to recognize Hanukkah with a menorah lighting in 1979.
- The first official White House Hanukkah party took place in 2001, hosted by George W. Bush.
- There are now usually two Hanukkah receptions — plans came together last-minute this year due to COVID-19.
The secretary of the interior under Carter initially refused to issue a permit for a menorah on the White House lawn, citing the First Amendment, according to the Washington Post. But Stu Eizenstat, one of Carter’s advisers, argued that the National Christmas Tree’s permit should also be denied on the same grounds, and the event was allowed to proceed.
Since then, every US president has marked Hanukkah in one way or another.
“Tonight, for the first time in American history, the Hanukkah menorah will be lit at the White House residence,” Bush said at the ceremony. “It’s a symbol that this house may be a temporary home for Laura and me, but it’s the people’s house, and it belongs to people of all faiths.”
Matt Nosanchuk served as the White House’s associate director of public engagement and liaison to the American Jewish community during Obama’s second term. He told Insider that there used to be separate tables for kosher and non-kosher food at Bush’s Hanukkah parties, but one year the labels were accidentally switched.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, a Chabad rabbi in Washington, DC, who works closely with the White House staff to prepare kosher food, suggested making the entire reception kosher to avoid confusion in the future.
“Apparently President Bush said, ‘Do whatever you need to do, it’s fine,’ and Rabbi Shemtov was like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to stay out of the kitchen for 24 hours before the party,'” Nosanchuk said.
The two identical receptions are hosted on the same day so that the White House kitchen only has to be made kosher once.
“Of course, I said we gotta invite this kid to the White House Hanukkah party,” Nosanchuk said. “We didn’t use the menurkey onstage, but we made sure the kid was up front on the rope line so that he could say hello to President Obama and present him with a menurkey. And President Obama loved the menurkey.”
Before meeting the Obamas, Boxer and his group were told to prepare 45 seconds of a song to perform for them. They chose a snippet from “A Hamilton Chanukah,” a medley of songs from the Broadway musical “Hamilton” rewritten with Hanukkah-themed lyrics.
Boxer said that their private concert featured some unexpected guests.
“We look over, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor are peering through the door,” he said. “Barack Obama goes, ‘Come in, come in.’ One of them said, ‘I love this stuff.'”
“I went out of my way to invite people who had never been before, who had done interesting and important and valuable work in the Jewish community or in their broader community,” he said. “There were a wide array of constituencies and groups and individuals who we wanted to engage with and touch during these holiday receptions. The Hanukkah receptions were a subset of that larger group.”
“It was really nice to see great LGBTQ representation there,” he said of the Hanukkah parties he attended. “I felt seen. I saw leaders of every Jewish LGBTQ organization there, and they saw me.”
He told Insider that the White House knows how to throw a good Hanukkah party.
“Any Orthodox Jew knows that kosher food can really go either way, especially kosher catering. This caterer does an amazing job,” he said. “There’s a room with a huge smorgasbord of food, and then there’s a cutting board on the side giving out the lamb chops, and that’s where the line is. They are delicious.”
The New York Times reported in 2017 that Trump broke with tradition by excluding Democratic lawmakers from the guest list of what until then had been a bipartisan event.
According to the Times of Israel, Trump attended only the evening Hanukkah reception, where he falsely claimed that with the help of “certain very important people, if they have wisdom and if they have courage, we are going to win this election.” Joe Biden had already been declared the winner the previous month.
Three days after the party, vice chairman of the Massachusetts Republican State Committee Tom Mountain was hospitalized with COVID-19, which he attributed to his attendance at the event.
“Let’s put it this way: When I went down to Washington, DC, for the White House Hanukkah event, I was perfectly fine,” Mountain told NBC affiliate WJAR. “And three days later after that event, I was in the hospital … ready to be put on a lifesaving ventilator.”
On Sunday, Biden celebrated the start of the holiday in a statement.
“From our family to yours, and from the People’s House to your own homes, Jill and I wish you and your loved ones a Chanukah Sameach, a Happy Hanukkah!” he said.
This year, the National Menorah Lighting took place on November 28. Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, spoke at the event.
“On this first night of Hanukkah, Jews all around the world are going to light their menorahs in the windows of their homes — just like the vice president and I are going to do later tonight at our home here in DC,” he said, CNN reported. “As we light this menorah on this lawn of the free, let us rededicate ourselves to doing everything we can to shine a light on hate, so we can put an end to hate.”