White House for Hanukkah?

The email arrived late Friday: “The President and Mrs. Obama request the pleasure of your company at a Hanukkah reception at the White House on Wednesday, December 17, 2014.”

I read it again, and again. It was exciting, but why had I received this?InviteAs It happened, I was about to fly to New York for a week and could easily take the train to Washington.

But what would I wear? The invite said, “business or holiday attire.” In Boulder, where I’ve lived the past 12 years, business attire means a clean shirt and jeans.

Peter Swift, who’s the mayor of Gold Hill, CO, stopped by that night, and I showed him the invite. It asked me to RSVP with the “date of birth, social security number, city and state of residence and country of citizenship of your guest and yourself.”

“It’s a scam,” Peter said. “If you send all that info, they’ll have your accounts cleaned out fast.”

This hadn’t occurred to me, but now it did seem fishy. The White House could easily access my information, so why ask for it? And would they really send out invites only five days in advance?

We searched online and found no evidence of a scam for the White House Hanukkah party. But when we googled the return email address, Hanukkah1RSVP@who.eop.gov, the screen said, “No Results.”

I asked friends who’d been to the White House if they thought the invite was real, and they said, “Hard to tell.” But Mark Whitaker, who’d been Washington Bureau chief for NBC, said it looked similar to ones he’d received, and the return address was that of the White House.

Okay. I found an outfit in a wardrobe bag of clothes I’d worn when I worked in Hollywood, and left for the airport. I got a call from a man in L.A. whom I’d just recently met, John Berzner. When I told him I might be going to the White House, he blurted, “Can you bring a guest?”

I was caught off guard. I’d already asked three friends in New York to come and they said they couldn’t rearrange their schedules on such short notice.

I told John it might not be legit, and anyway, it didn’t seem worth flying across the country for. “I’m coming,” he said.

To call John an extrovert, or assertive, would be an understatement. In the two times I’d gone with him to a restaurant, he started conversations with people at all the tables around us, invited a stranger at the bar to join us for dinner, and crashed a party being held in a private room. He told me numerous times, “I’m a producer. I make things happen.” What exactly he produces, though, I haven’t yet found out.

For better or worse, he was my guest.

SD, John closeHe picked me up at the Washington train station in a limo, which was nice, and brought me to the University Club where he’d booked a room. The White House party was at 2 pm, the gates opened at 1:30, and I told him I wanted to be there at 1:15, since there would be a long line to clear security. I thought it also might be wise to eat something first.

“What would you like? I’m here to serve you,” he said.

Something simple, maybe a turkey sandwich? He asked his driver where the best deli in Washington was, and said he’d go there for sandwiches. It was now 1 pm and I begged him not to fight the traffic to get there and back. “I don’t care about the sandwich. Let’s just get to the White House.”

“You care,” he said, “or you wouldn’t have asked.” He refused to be deterred, so I changed clothes while he went for the food.

It was 2 when we reached the White House, and as we waited in the long line, I got a text from a friend telling me Obama had just announced he’s restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. I was thrilled! I’d been to Cuba recently and had been praying I would see this in my lifetime.

Earlier in the day, before hearing the news, John had told me he’d brought one of his prize Cuban cigars to give the President. I said Obama couldn’t take any gift or object handed to him—it might be poisoned or harmful.

John gave a knowing smile. “Around me, things happen that don’t normally happen. Miracles—every day.”


After 90 minutes and 3 checkpoints, we were in! SD treeThe rooms were alive with Christmas lights and fragrant fir trees.In the reception area, there was a long buffet table set with crystal, china and silver. The food, however, which had been prepared under kosher supervision, was not memorable, and the latkes were made of sweet potatoes and hard as stones.

In an adjacent gallery, I saw people crowding around a podium. There would be no reception line, I was told, but Barack and Michelle would appear at some point and speak. I turned away from John, who was talking to everyone he saw, and hurried to stake out a place as near the podium as possible. And waited. A half hour, then another hour. No Obamas. People were pressing against me from all sides, and there were hot lights for the TV cameras.

I’ve been struggling with vertigo since May, and standing in a dense crowd with hot lights was making me so dizzy I thought I would faint. But I feared that if I left, Obama would appear the next moment.

Finally, he walked out, looking glamorous and exultant, along with Michelle, wearing a dramatic chartreuse and blue dress.

Barack roomThe President said, “I want to begin with today’s wonderful news! I’m told that in the Jewish tradition, one of the great mitzvahs is pidyon shvuyim (the redemption of captives). And that’s what we’re celebrating today.” He spoke of Alan Gross, a contractor who’d been held in a Cuban prison for five years and just been flown back to the U.S.

Obama related the Hanukkah story of the Maccabees, who fought to regain Jerusalem and the temple, where a small vessel of oil burned not just one night but for eight. “The story teaches us that our light can shine brighter than we could ever imagine,” he said.

The White House had commissioned a menorah to be created by Jewish and Arab students at a bilingual school in Jerusalem. Two girls from the school lit the candles, while a rabbi led everyone in singing the Hebrew blessings. U.S. President Barack Obama is joined by Rebecca Bardach, Inbar Shaked Vardi, Mouran Ibrahim and first lady Michelle Obama as they attend a Hanukkah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House in WashingtonAfterward, I found a quiet table in the reception hall and just sat there, recovering my equilibrium. John found me and said he’d been texting me, but I must not have heard because of the crowd. He stared at me a moment. “I gave the President the cigar.”


John had worked his way toward the rope line where Obama was shaking hands after speaking. Because he’s tall, John held the long cigar over the heads of the crowd, pointing it at Obama.

“Mr. President,” he shouted, “A Cuban cigar for you.”

The president spotted it, reached for it, then ran it under his nose and said, “Pretty good!”

A man standing nearby captured it on video, and while I was riding the train back to New York, John was working his contacts, emailing the video to a friend of his daughter, who works at ABC News and posted it on their website. In no time, John’s cigar was all over the Internet.

As I sat back in the train and reflected on the day, what struck me was how strange and wonderful it was to hear the Hebrew blessings I’d learned as a child ringing through the most hallowed and powerful house in America. And how my parents and grandparents—who’d fled persecution in Hungary and Russia—would have felt standing there beside me. The thought filled me with warmth and joy.

Happy holidays! And may something unexpected and delightful come to all of us in 2015



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41 thoughts on “White House for Hanukkah?

  1. Lola

    How fantastic that you had this Hanukkah at the White House experience! I loved hearing all about it and especially your reflections; (great cigar story as well!) Thank you for sending!

    1. Parry


      What a fortuitous happening! You were powerful to attract John to “coincidentally” call you. Perfect timing… Thanks for sharing. Loved the photos…


  2. Grace

    Wishing you the happiest holiday season. I so very much enjoy your blogs and e-mails and this one was no exception. I am glad you were able to attend the White House gathering. Many blessings to you.

    From a fellow Boulder resident (up Fourmile Canyon)

  3. Sherry deutschburbach

    In all of your writing, you have always been able to express what I am thinking. I am held captive and know I will have to finish reading before I can sleep. Glad you got invited and enjoyed the experience. Just finished your recent book. A little hard because I am so close to the end myself. Don’t stop writing.


    what a lovely story, sara. all the surprise and glamour aside…the best part was the reminder of your attachment to your family traditions. all best wishes for more surprises and blessings in the coming year!


  5. Debbie Broeker


    I’m glad you took the chance and attended the White House Hanukkah party. Although I am not Jewish, I lived with a Jewish man for many years. He always told me that Hanukkah was a “minor holiday” for Jews, but I still enjoyed the ritual of lighting the menorah and singing the Hanukkah song (Baruch Atah Adonai?) Although I never converted to Judaism, I always admired the sanctity for religious holidays like Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. Christian holidays have become so commercialized with Santa Clause and the Easter bunny that I’m sure most children don’t even know how those holidays actually originated!

    Thank you for sharing your Hanukkah story! Debbie Broeker

  6. Peter Lake

    What fun for you and bravo to John for his cigar coup, especially in light of previous White House cigar abuse.

  7. Susan Morrell

    What a delightful story! You looked beautiful standing by those trees…your smile was a glowing as the lights! Thanks for sharing this with us.


  8. Judi Bachrach Turner

    i realize that you are well known, but who would have thought that you would be invited to a party given by the most famous person in the U.S. if not planet earth? Also you look GREAT.
    thanks for the blog.
    Judi Bachrach Turner

  9. Dori

    Hello Sara,
    I share in your delight of being invited to the White House and your experience is a reminder of our sameness. Our shared humanity. What an extraordinary way to celebrate and honor you and other invitees of the Hanukkah Reception.
    By the way, The December Project remains one of my favorite books of 2014. It’s one of the books that created the most perceptible shift in my attitude about living, aging and death. Here’s to a wonderful healthy, happy and prosperous New Year.

    Peace & Love,

  10. Terry

    Sara, I can’t say I know you well, but I sure admire your free spirit and love your courage to let it spice up your life. Thanks for relaying this improbable exciting episode.

  11. Miles in Lutz, FL

    Oh Sara! The whole experience, the whole story, is so very exciting, beautiful and moving. It brings tears of hope to my eyes and fills my heart with joy!

    My sister-in-law, a great doll artist, and brother were invited to the White House. It was so exciting. A cute follow-up to that story. She had donated a doll to the White House collection of American Crafts. The doll when missing and the Secret Service investigated. It turned out the doll was in Chelsea Clinton’s room. She loved it!

    Your writing continues to move and inspire me!

    Thank you!

  12. Marc Nordstrom

    That is an awesome story! Interesting, your process around making sure it was not a scam. I am sure I would have questioned it also, given the DOB stuff and all that. But, what an example of jumping into the river for a wonderful experience! Nice work. Happy Belated Hannukah!

  13. Judith Terzi

    Happy New Year Sara. Enjoyed the Hanukkah in the White House story. Also enjoyed reading The December Project.

    You will not remember me, sans doute, but I was in your 6th grade class at Hancock Park Elementary. I still have the class photo. (Maiden name=King)

    Good luck with the vertigo; I have it too. If it’s peripheral positional, have you tried the exercises? I find them quite helpful.

    All best for the New Year.
    Judith Terzi

  14. Joey bortnick

    Sara. Your parents and grandparents were with you. How wonderful ! Lovely Holidays to you. Love from Joey

  15. Ren Feldman

    Hanukkah and New Year’s blessings, Saraleh. Sei gesint in the New Year. Love from Cedar and me, and thank you for a year of wonderful writing, beautiful friend.


  16. Jamie Sarche

    I love that President Obama would talk about mitzvoth and use the Hebrew phrase, pidyon shvuyim , to describe the situation with Cuba. Thanks for sharing!

  17. Tim O'Donoghue (PhD OSU '91)

    Sara, you are an incredibly excellent story-teller, and in my home country – Ireland, we can tell a good story-teller when we see one, or, more accurately, when we read one. Thanks so much for sharing a happy, joyous experience!

  18. Tracy

    The trip to the ceremony sounds not-worth-it to me but you got a great blog out of it and you look great!
    Glad you’re still generally packed and ready to go.

  19. JoAnn Richi, MC, LPC

    You’ve done it again ! You had an opportunity to do something exciting and plunged right in (and survived to write about it). I love the way you pick us up and take us with you on all your adventures. You could have accepted the grumbling that this was ‘just a scam’, you might have told yourself you were too sick due to the vertigo problem you’ve been battling. But you didn’t. You found the most outrageous, outgoing friend you knew and took off across the country to go to something that may or may not have been real.
    It was as real as you are, Sara. Keep traveling, keep writing, and your fans (like me) will keep reading.

  20. Debra Johnson

    How ironic to get an email/blog post from you as I spent most of last week rereading Loose Change on Kindle while in Santa Fe on vacation. In fact, I love reading your book while on an airplane because I know how good it is and thus will never get bored of it. I read a little of Cowboy and Leap, too, along with an article you wrote 40 years ago on Patti Hearst. I am glad that President Obama has been hipped to your influence and wonder if Barack or Michelle may have read Loose Change as teenagers (which is when I first read it). Of course I have no idea if they’ve read it at all but I hope that they have!

    How wonderful was it to see a yarmulke in the White House! As someone who is both Black and Jewish (Black father, Jewish mother), the first thing I thought of was how we were once excluded from places like the White House. Now there is a Black family hosting a Hannukah event in the White House. Only in my wildest dreams….thank goodness for Sara Davidson AND Barack Obama!

    A joyous 2015 to you!

  21. Sally Hurand


    So, why DID you get invited? Was it your connection with the rabbi? I am reading Loose Change and have been reading your blogs for several years; your writing is very honest and alive. I enjoy its rhythm.

    Happy New Year!

    1. Sara Davidson Post author

      I was invited by Matt Nosanchuk, the White House Liaison to the Jewish community, whom I’d met at a conference last fall. Mystery solved. And Thanks to Matt!

  22. Arlene Jenkins

    I am not Jewish,but have many Jewish friends. What a beautiful story and the pictures”ain’t bad either”
    I enjoyed your talk at Sun City Carolina Lakes a few years ago.

  23. Linda Newton

    Did you ever find out why you were invited? Or why you were to give “them” your social security number? But what a wonderful story all around. It seems your life has been a compilation of such unexpected occurrences. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  24. Dusty

    Loose Change changed my life. It helped to give me perspective of our generation. All these years later, I still occasionally mention it in conversations. Thank you.

  25. Dusty Justus

    Loose Change changed my life. It helped to give me perspective of our generation. All these years later, I still occasionally mention it in conversations. By the way, I named my daughter Sara.
    Thank you.

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