Saturday 19 April 2008, had been a beautiful day, but there were no windows in a conference room at the Sheraton in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where the conference table was set for the Seder dinner, the ritual feast that marks the Jewish festival of Passover.
This particular Seder would gain great significance, however, as a tradition that would pass from this Harrisburg hotel room to the White House, where it would become the first ever celebrated there. On Thursday, the same celebrants who began the tradition, back when they were young staffers on the campaign trail for then senator Barack Obama, will sit down again together for Passover with the president for the ninth and final time.
The idea came about when 22-year-old national advance staffer Herbie Ziskend, 23-year-old ground logistics coordinator Eric Lesser, and 31-year-old new media director and videographer Arun Chaudhary realised that they wouldn’t be able to make it home from the campaign for Passover, and instead decided to hold a Seder for themselves in Harrisburg.
The setting wasn’t perfect. “It’s not the world’s most light hotel to begin with; frumpy carpets, slightly mildewed, and we were in the basement,” Chaudhary remembered. “With no disrespect to the hardworking people at the Harrisburg Sheraton,” Ziskend said, “it was literally the most ordinary hotel I’ve ever been to.”
On the table were the traditional ceremonial ingredients of a seder dinner: Kiddush cups and Manischewitz wine, matzo and gefilte fish, and Haggadas – the books from which, at Passover, Jews retell the story of the exodus from slavery in Egypt – all requisitioned by Lesser’s cousin, who was a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
The rituals also involve a symbolic lamb shank bone, but the hotel’s kitchen didn’t have one, so Lesser improvised by stripping the meat off a chicken drumstick.
The Sheraton was playing host to a cheerleading competition at the time, and the first sign that the junior senator from Illinois was near was a Beatlemania-like scream which went up from the hallway. Then, several secret service agents bounded in and looked over the room – one of them, Chaudhary remembered, even checked inside the soup tureen. Then, Obama opened the door and said: “Is this where the Seder is?”
Even by the standards of the hard-fought 2008 primary, Saturday 19 April had been a long and exhausting day. The previous evening, Obama had spoken in Philadelphia to his largest crowd to that point in the campaign, but the primary was a morass. Clinton was going to win the state, and the staff could feel it; and as if that wasn’t enough, Obama was dealing with the fallout of the Rev Jeremiah Wright story.
Obama had spent the day on a whistle-stop rail tour from Philadelphia to Harrisburg, making half a dozen stops along the way. Ziskend, who worked in advance logistics, had been racing at 80mph ahead of the train to get to each location before the senator arrived, to hand out signs to volunteers and rope off the area for the local press.
It was past 9pm by the time the group sat down together, but the Seder ritual offered a bounty of much-needed respite. “For the senator – and all of us – it was a pause,” Ziskend said. “And the Seder is supposed to be a pause.”
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