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Obamas to celebrate Passover at White House. Will Seder end with 'next year in East Jerusalem'?

March 29, 2010 | 10:06 am

President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and aides at first White House Seder 2009

Tensions between Israel and the United States are particularly strained.

President Obama did not give an inch recently when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to visit. The White House delivered its message -- freeze the settlements in East Jerusalem, then we'll talk -- with that peculiar weapon of diplomacy -- no photo op for the visiting PM with POTUS.

But Monday night, with Jews all around the world, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama will gather around a table in the Old Family Dining Room to celebrate Passover with their daughters, Malia and Sasha, and about 20 aides, most Jewish or African American.

Eric Lesser, the former baggage handler and now aide to political adviser David Axelrod, organized the first Obama staff Seder on the campaign trail in 2008. In the windowless basement of a hotel in Pennsylvania, tired campaign workers recounted the story of the Exodus amid a dispiriting surge in poll numbers by rival Hillary Clinton and a troublesome controversy over Obama's relationship with his pastor.

"We were in the desert, so to speak," remembered Arun Chaudhary, then and now Obama's videographer, who grew up attending Seders with his half-Jewish, half-Indian family.

To their surprise, the candidate walked in. "Hey, is this the Seder?" Obama asked. So last year, he became the first president to host a Seder at the White House. As Lesser noted, it was probably “the first time in history that gefilte fish had been placed on White House dishware.”

By all accounts, the first family has really gotten into it. The president and other top aides such as Valerie Jarrett are said to enjoy the themes of liberation and overcoming slavery. Last year the Obama girls asked the Four Questions and found the afikomen so quickly that they hid it again, requiring a 45-minute hunt by a former White House advance man to find it.

Noting the heightened tension between Tel Aviv and Washington, one satirist suggested that what really blew up those Obama-Netanyahu talks was a dispute over Passover.

In a satire, Andrew Bloom speculated that it was the phrase "next year in Jerusalem" -- that drove the two sides apart. In fact, he wrote in a parody, private talks between Obama and Netanyahu:

Included a strong request from the president that the upcoming Passover holiday not include the familiar refrain of “next year in Jerusalem,” citing the passage as provocative and unhelpful for future peace talks. The administration suggested replacing it with “next year in peace” or “next year in Israel,” but leaving the final wording up to both the Israelis and Palestinians. Netanyahu is said to have balked at the request, indicating that the refrain dates back well before the U.N. Partition of 1947.

There is precedence for changing the words of course. That first time in the basement of a hotel in Harrisburg, Pa., Obama staffers changed the phrase to "next year in the White House."

-- Johanna Neuman

Photo: Pete Souza / White House

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