Every year, for one night preceding its annual Hanukkah party, the White House kitchen becomes 100 percent kosher.
The transformation only lasts 24 hours, but it is complete. Under the observation of an Orthodox rabbi, the White House ovens are scrubbed and scorched, every kitchen surface is cleaned and boiled, and each work area is covered with a thick layer of plastic wrap and aluminum foil.
This year, the exhaustive kashering, or “kosherizing” (making kosher) process was overseen by Rabbi Levi Shemtov.
White House Goes Kosher
“For me as an American Jew, it’s a distinct honor for me to oversee the kosherizing of what is the most important kitchen in the country,” Rabbi Shemtov said in a video clip.
“The White House kitchen is generally not kosher,” he explained. For an event like the Hanukkah party, at which kosher food must be served to Jewish guests, the kitchen has to be “kosherized.” This means milk and meat must be separated, only certified kosher foods are allowed in, and special kosher utensils and cookware are used.
“It is really set up differently,” Cristera Comerford, the White House executive chef, noted of her newly kosher kitchen.
The kosher food, including traditional donuts fried in oil, served at President Barack Obama’s last fête for the Festival of Lights in the White House was “at the highest standard of kosher observance,” said Rabbi Shemtov.
While Hanukkah does not begin until December 24 this year, Obama hosted his annual party early, on Wednesday night.
His remarks at the event commemorated the Hanukkah story of the Maccabean rebellion against the Romans, and he even explained the origin of the mitzvot (Bible commandments) of the menorah.
“The first chapter of the Hanukkah story was written 22 centuries ago, when rulers banned religious rituals and persecuted Jews who dared to observe their faith,” he said. “Which is why today we are asked not only to light the menorah, but to proudly display it—to publicize the mitzvah.”
Likening the Hanukkah story to modern times, he continued, “Everybody in America can understand the spirit of this tradition.”
Assisting him to light the menorah was the family of Elie Wiesel, who passed away in July, and the family of former Israeli president Shimon Peres, whose September funeral Obama flew to Israel to attend.