Vice President Kamala Harris is a barrier breaker. Among other milestones, her inauguration ushered in the first executive branch family with a Jewish spouse—Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff. As per a White House official who spoke to CNN in March, “He obviously recognizes the significance of being the first in this space and I think he’s very honored to have the opportunity to help lead some of these really important and significant traditions.”
One of the historic firsts the second family of the U.S. has given Americans is having a “Jewish White House spouse” lead a White House Passover Seder this spring. Approximately 40,000 households watched live on either Zoom or YouTube.
This year was not the first, as the tradition of official White House seders dates back to 2009—actually the Obama campaign held one in 2008, during which then-Sen. Obama slightly altered the traditional closing line, “next year in Jerusalem.” He ad-libbed, “next year in the White House, if I win.” As president, he kept that promise for eight years. The tradition was discontinued in 2017, despite the fact that presidential daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner are both observant Jews. Some Trump staffers held a seder each year, but no one from the Trump-Kushner family attended.
During this year’s event, Emhoff spoke of his own childhood and seders at his bubbe’s Brooklyn house in terms that resonate powerfully for millions of American Jews:
Now, of course, it’s exactly what you’re picturing. That apartment. The plastic covering on the sofa. The smell of brisket wafting in from the kitchen. And me, sitting there at the table, patiently waiting, just waiting, to dig into that delightfully gelatinous gefilte fish, which inexplicably I still love today.
He’s not wrong about the inexplicable part. (But don’t tell my mother I said that.) The vice president, also known in certain circles as “Momala,” closed the White House seder and, like President Obama, did a little aspirational, COVID-related improvising of her own: “Happy Passover, to all who celebrate, and indeed next year in Jerusalem—next year, in person.”
As for the aforementioned mezuzah, in October Harris and Emhoff affixed one to the doorpost of their house, the official vice presidential residence at the Naval Observatory.
The ceremony was officiated by Rabbi Peter Berg, who leads the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation in Atlanta—colloquially known as “The Temple.” The U.S.’ second family reached out to Berg because of his synagogue’s uniquely important history. It was both the religious home of Leo Frank—lynched in 1915 by a mob organized by high-ranking Georgia elected and law enforcement officials—and Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, whose support for civil rights and friendship with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led antisemitic white supremacists to explode 50 sticks of dynamite at The Temple in 1958. More recently, Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia used a prayer book from this same congregation—at which he became a Bar Mitzvah (this is a religious coming-of-age ritual, after which the person becomes an adult in the eyes of Judaism)—when he took his oath of office earlier this year. The Harris-Emhoff family asked for a mezuzah from The Temple, which happily obliged.
Speaking with CNN, Berg characterized the mezuzah’s placement as “an extraordinary moment in United States history.” He continued: “Both the second gentleman and the vice president spoke off the cuff about what it meant to them to be standing here. Remember, this was not a public event. There were no cameras and no staffers there. There weren’t Jewish elected officials.” The rabbi added: ”When I started talking, we all teared up because of the significance and the history.” The event was also the first time Emhoff’s parents were with their son and daughter-in-law since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year and a half earlier.
A second mezuzah, this one loaned by the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and Life at UC Berkeley, was also placed inside the vice presidential residence. This one too has major historic significance. It was designed by Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert, a German Jew who fled the Nazis in 1933 for what was then Palestine, and later emigrated to the United States.
The mezuzah came to the Magnes collection from the family of Alice Grossman, in whose San Francisco house it resided until her passing. That’s the city where Harris first won elected office as district attorney, and the Jewish community there best knows her work as a public servant. Grossman received it as a gift from none other than Leah Rabin, wife of the Israeli Prime Minister and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Yitzhak Rabin—who was murdered by a Jewish extremist in 1995. The Magnes Collection’s curator, Francesco Spagnolo, summarized why this mezuzah was chosen for Harris and her family: “It is a mezuzah that connects with their personal history. It is a rare example of a Jewish ritual object that has touched the lives of several women in service. And it really intersects history with a capital H.”
The first night of Hanukkah brought us another historic first thanks to the vice presidential family:
After celebrating privately in their home, on Dec. 1 the vice president and second gentleman also joined the Bidens for a White House Hanukkah celebration. As Biden pointed out: “This is a White House tradition. But for the first time in history it is a family tradition.” Emhoff offered his own thoughts as well:
Today I’m here before you as the first Jewish spouse (of) an American president or vice president, celebrating Hanukkah in the people’s house—it’s humbling. And it’s not lost [on] me that I stand before you all on behalf of all the Jewish families and communities out there across our country. I understand that and I really appreciate it. Our history, our values as Jews, are an essential part of who we are as Americans. Jewish values are American values, and I believe this deeply.
American Jews have experienced a lot of turmoil over the past few years. We’ve endured the antisemitic terrorist shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue—the worst mass killing of Jews on American soil in our history, as well as other violent hate crimes that resulted in Jewish deaths.
But the relationship between Jewish Americans and the Democratic Party remains strong. In 2020 Jews continued their tradition of overwhelmingly delivering their vote to Democrats in presidential elections. Other than Black Americans, no ethnic or religious group supports Democrats as strongly as Jews.
However, we cannot ignore the fact that that relationship has been tested at times in the past couple of years. From problematic rhetoric employed by a handful of left-leaning elected Democrats to disagreements over U.S. funding for Israel’s missile defense system, the Iron Dome, there have been some rocky moments.
And Harris herself faced criticism—some of it patently unfair, I would argue—for not immediately rebutting a student she had called on at a late September event who accused Israel of committing “ethnic genocide.” Her office reached out to Jewish leaders both inside and outside of government to reiterate that her “commitment to Israel’s security is unwavering” and go on record that she “strongly disagrees with the George Mason student’s characterization of Israel.”
Republicans have long been desperate to drive a wedge between Democrats—particularly Democrats of color—and the Jewish community (some of whom are themselves Americans of color), whether on Israel or antisemitism more broadly. They have no qualms about exaggerating or even flat-out lying, in some cases, to achieve their goal. The right-wing desperation includes throwing all kinds of shit against the wall hoping something will stick when it comes to Harris. Their latest and perhaps weakest attempt yet was slagging her for buying some … cookware. Supporters got their backs up and had Harris’ back.
To her credit, Harris continued to demonstrate her long-documented broad support for Israel and her commitment to fighting antisemitism. In early November she addressed the annual Never Is Now conference organized by the Anti-Defamation League. In the most powerful section of her remarks, she emphasized exactly where she stands: “And I want to be very clear about this: When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or their identity, when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism. And that is unacceptable.”
There are many ways for a person to proclaim they are a part of the Jewish community, and one can do so completely separately from religiosity or ritual. Having said that, when Kamala and Doug put a mezuzah on the doorpost of the Naval Observatory, they declared that they live in a Jewish household—a household that also contains multiple other traditions as well, no doubt.
We’ve never had a mezuzah placed on a house inhabited by the sitting vice president of the United States. Seeing it there—having it be seen there—is something few Jews of my or my parents’ generation ever expected would happen. Knowing that the woman who put it up there—a woman who also shares the progressive values embraced by most American Jews—holds such a high office means a great deal. It helps them feel truly represented.
Through her words, through the actions she takes in her home, and, most importantly, through the policies she supports as a member of the Biden-Harris administration, Kamala Harris has proven herself a staunch ally of the American Jewish community. More than that, she’s a member of the family.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas).