Objects Tell Stories: Hanukkah in the White House Read More
In celebration of Hanukkah, Senior Curator Susan Braunstein recalls two visits to the White House Hanukkah celebration to meet Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama
Growing up in the wilds of East Flatbush in Brooklyn, where no famous people seemed to have ever lived, I never dreamed that I might meet the President of the United States. Yet, through my job as curator at the Jewish Museum, I was privileged to meet not one but two.
The first was George W. Bush. It was in December 2001, a few months after 9/11, and the nation was still reeling. The White House was having a Hanukkah lamp lighting ceremony, and a staff member asked if the Jewish Museum would supply the lamp. Since I was the resident expert on our Hanukkah lamp collection, I was asked to select the lamp and travel down to Washington to install it. The piece I chose was one of my favorites — an elaborate three-foot tall lamp of solid silver in Baroque style, made in Ukraine. For the lighting ceremony, the children of White House staff members said the blessings and got Hanukkah gifts, while their parents and I lined the sides of the room.
When the President entered the room, and then stood nearby to give a speech, I thought my heart would stop. I was totally unprepared for what happened afterward — he went down the line of parents, greeting them all. When he got to me, I had enough presence of mind to tell him who I was. He said something extremely gracious, but I was in such shock that I could not recall what he said.
The second President was Barack Obama. In 2011, the Museum received a request for a Hanukkah lamp that related to the military, which was being honored at that year’s holiday celebration. The lamp we chose had been made in a Displaced Persons camp after World War II, and had been presented to General Joseph McNarney, who was in charge of the European Theater of Operations after the war. I returned to the White House to supervise the installation of the lamp and guard it during the party when the President spoke. All the guests, including me, took turns standing on line to have our picture taken with the President and First Lady. The process was extremely regulated — when an officer tapped me, I was to go stand in between the Obamas, and when he tapped me again, I was supposed to leave. I was therefore not expecting that they would actually speak to me (which they did). They could not have been more gracious or elegant, but again, due to my extreme state of awe, I have little recollection of what they said.
But at least I have two photographs of me with these past Presidents of the United States gracing the wall of my office — a reminder that a girl from Brooklyn can meet the most powerful person in America.
— Dr. Susan L. Braunstein, Senior Curator
To explore more Hanukkah lamps in the Jewish Museum collection, visit TheJewishMuseum.org/Collection.