‘I’d do it again,’ Rabbi Talve says of White House Hanukkah blessing

Rabbi Susan Talve (center) delivers a blessing as U.S. President Barack Obama hosts Israeli President Reuven Rivlin (second from right) for a Hanukkah reception at the White House in Washington on Dec. 9. Also pictured is U.S. first lady Michelle Obama. Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

By Gabe Fleisher, Freshman, John Burroughs School

The White House Hanukkah Party is a fairly new tradition in Washington D.C., spanning back to the beginning of President George W. Bush’s administration. 

Each year, the president welcomes a gathering of Jewish leaders into the White House and chooses a rabbi to give a blessing at the party. Perhaps no blessing in that party’s short history has been as controversial as the one given last year by Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation in St. Louis.

“I’m still not completely sure [how I was chosen],” Talve said, looking back at the experience a year later. “But I know I had been invited for the past few years and I hadn’t gone, and the fellow who invited me said, ‘You know, we’ve been inviting you for years,’ so clearly, I was on somebody’s radar at the White House.”

As for the prayer itself, Talve said: 

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“I really didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think it was going to be a big deal. It was only supposed to be two or three minutes. … I wrote it on the plane, actually, because I was busy and they didn’t give me very much time to think about it.”

It wasn’t until Talve arrived in Washington that the importance of the prayer began to sink in. 

“The night before, as I was thinking about what I wanted to say, and I realized that the president of Israel was going to be there as well, it began to feel big to me,” she said. “It felt huge, it felt like, ‘Wow, I’m going to really get to be a part of history here.’ ”

Talve’s blessing was described by a pool report as “lengthy and spirited” – not the normal Hanukkah blessing. In her remarks, Talve was able to touch on a number of causes that were important to her, from immigration and the refugee crisis to the Black Lives Matter movement and the West Lake Landfill, to “islamophobia, and homophobia, and transphobia, and racism and anti-Semitism and all the other isms that dare to dim our hope.” 

Much of that, she revealed, came together only at the hotel the previous night. 

“That’s when I thought about saying, not only about the Maccabees, who stood for religious freedom at a time when it was being compromised, but I also thought about what it meant to stand there in the White House with the president of the United States and his wife, who I have tremendous respect for, and with the president of Israel,” Talve said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin became one of her inspirations for the prayer after she read an opinion piece by him in the Washington Post the previous day. Rivlin wrote about the need for Israeli students to study Arabic along with Hebrew and English. 

“I was really moved by that,” Talve said. “I thought, those are the kinds of things that are going to be required for peacemaking, those kind of systemic changes.” 

Another inspiration was her 90-year-old father and his immigrant parents. 

“I just had this view of Lady Liberty, and I thought of all the refugees, and how, as Jews, it’s our obligation to stand with the people who we know [are] the strangers, because we were the strangers in the land of Egypt,” Talve said. “This country saved many of our lives.”

It also was important to Talve to mention movements in St. Louis, from Black Lives Matter to the West Lake Landfill, where neighbors in Bridgeton have been fighting to resolve issues of buried radioactive waste and a smoldering fire. 

“I felt like I was standing there with my Black Lives Matter clergy, who had become such family, and … the moms at West Lake,” she said. “The last time I had been in D.C., it had been to protest the Environmental Protection Agency for not helping us with the cleanup at Bridgeton and West Lake, and I was just flooded with that.”

To her, it seemed obvious to discuss all of these topics.

“I kind of said what I always say,” Talve said. 

To many others, the importance of these issues was not as obvious, and her remarks were met with a wave of criticism on several conservative blogs and websites.

“It’s really short,” Talve said after looking over her blessing. “I don’t know why they made such a big deal about it.” 

At one point during the blessing, when she declared, “We must do everything to ensure security for Israelis and justice for Palestinians as allies committed to a lasting peace,” Rivlin, who was behind Talve, said “Inshallah” – Arabic for “God willing.” 

Talve repeated the phrase.

“That was annoying to people, that I would speak Arabic at the White House, but he did it first,” Talve said. “The president of Israel did it first!” 

Daniel Greenfield, a writer for the conservative website magazine Frontpage, described her as “gleefully chanting” the Arabic word.  

“I was shocked,” Talve said of the response. “I was surprised that that, of all things, that that was surprising to people.”

She was also criticized by, among others, the Blaze, a conservative website founded by talk show host Glenn Beck, for adding the word “foremothers” to the Hanukkah  blessing that states “miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.”

“I did not plan that,” Talve said. “I always add the mothers. That was spontaneous. … That didn’t feel controversial anymore.”

She was also assailed for her political rhetoric, especially in mentioning Black Lives Matter and “justice for Palestinians.” 

An article on the website American Thinker cited Talve’s blessing after leading with a broadside against Obama: “Leave it to Barack Obama to turn what should be a celebration of the Jewish people’s survival in the face of adversity into a politicized rant celebrating the cause of the Palestinians, who want to ‘drive them into the sea.’ “

Greenfield, in the Frontpage article, wrote of Talve: “Her behavior was deeply insulting to the religious Jewish community and made it clear that the White House was determined to hijack even a Hanukkah party to promote an anti-Jewish agenda.”

Talve said, “The overwhelming response was positive, especially from young people, across the world, not just across the country. I heard from so many young people that they were so grateful to hear those words at the White House, connected to Hanukkah.” 

However, Talve did receive “death threats and criticism of me being a Muslim and me being like Obama and me being anti-Israel [which was] hurtful and frightening.

“The horrible comments — the most hateful comments — were the ones that linked me to President Obama, [which] to me were compliments because, for me, to be linked to this president was an honor,” she said.

One such comment was by popular conservative radio host Mark Levin, who posted a link to the American Thinker article on his Facebook page with the message: “Yet again, Obama disrespects Jewish people, this time on Hanukkah.”

After all of the criticism, would Talve change anything if she were to go back? 

“I know myself, I’m pretty consistent,” she said. “I always think it’s important, when you have a moment, to lift up and respond to the suffering … and I think, of all holidays, Hanukkah gives us the opportunity to share Jewish lessons with each other and with our friends in other faith traditions, and if I had to go back and do it again, as hard as it was, I’d probably do it the same way again.”

Editor’s note: The writer’s father, Randy Fleisher, is also a rabbi at Central Reform Congregation.