Hanukkah at the White House – Bill Clinton & Laura Nadel
While Hannukah celebrations at the White House seem common place today, the first menorah lighting in the Oval Office happened in 1993. On the first night of Hanukkah, Laura Nadel and 21 children were invited to the White House to celebrate and light the candles with President Bill Clinton. Laura, who had recently graduated with a master’s degree in public policy from George Washington University, had taken an interim job managing all the children’s events for the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center (DCJCC).
Little did Laura know that she would be making international news! During the event, six-year old Ilana Kattan, wearing her Israeli Teenage Ninja Turtle t-shirt, accidently backed up too close to the menorah and got her ponytail caught in the fire. President Clinton quickly snuffed out the flame with his bare hands, and the incident made the headlines, which ranged from “The First Firefighter” to “President to the rescue as girl’s hair smolders” to “It’s a Hair-Raising Hanukkah Party in the Oval Office”. Nearly 30 years after the fact, we talked with Laura to reflect on the experience.
JLiving: Laura, thank you for taking some time with us to discuss this event. Can you tell us how you got involved?
Laura: I was working for the DCJCC, running its after-school program. At the time, the program was at Adas Israel, a synagogue in Upper Northwest DC that housed the city’s Jewish Primary Day School. I ran the DCJCC’s afternoon program for children who attended the school and for children who went to other schools in the area. From what I recall, the White House liaison called the JCC asking for a group of students to come for a photo op with the President for Hanukkah. The liaison was looking for an older group, but whoever took the call at the DCJCC pitched the group of younger kids. And the White House agreed! It was pretty exciting.
JLiving: How much notice did you get?
Laura: It has been 28 years, so I don’t remember exactly, but I think we had a few days’ notice, as we had time to get the children’s parents’ permission and put a program together. We built a menorah out of clay, created a big greeting card, and practiced the prayers and songs. We also came up with a plan for what to do in what order. Most of the kids were Jewish day school students, so they already knew the dreidel song and most of the prayers.
JLiving: Most of the kids were 4-6 years old. How did they handle the spotlight?
Laura: First off, my boss, the executive director, a board member, the 21 kids, and I went to the White House. So, that didn’t feel so unusual. I drove the kids in the JCC van to the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance, where we were admitted through the gate. We went through security and were led into the Roosevelt Room; from there, we were brought into the Oval Office, where fully half of the room was crammed with bright lights, cameras, boom microphones, and videographers. The adults were excited and gaga about the whole thing, for sure. I can tell you I was slightly overwhelmed at first.
JLiving: Watching the video, the kids don’t seem that fazed by it.
Laura: I was really impressed how great they did. They seemed unfazed for the most part.
JLiving: Did you realize you were perhaps the first person, the first woman who recited the Shehecheyanu in the Oval Office?
Laura: I was 25 years old at the time, I was running kids’ programs, and I just did what I needed to do. There was not a whole lot of reflection on my part! My whole job was working with children in Jewish settings, and this was one more setting – in this case, one that we were making Jewish.
JLiving: One of my favorite moments is when two children present the President with the clay menorah you all made — he asks if everyone made it, and one kid responds, “Well, mostly Laura”.
Laura: That made me giggle. I loved his honesty!
JLiving: And then something went wrong.
Laura: It did. After we lit the candles, everyone turned around to face the cameras, and Ilana, who was standing in front of the menorah, leaned back. Her ponytail went into the flame and began to catch on fire. President Clinton noticed before anyone else did, and he squashed her hair with his hands and pulled her toward him. It all happened really quickly, and the President was very protective of Ilana, making sure she was alright.
JLiving: Did you see it happen?
Laura: Only once he was pulling her to him.
JLiving: I saw that you quickly moved the menorah further back on the desk.
Laura (laughing): Yes, I moved the menorah back. Meanwhile, a secret service member flew over, the President moved the menorah, and the liaison moved it back even farther. I think four people were involved in moving it to a safe distance.
JLiving: After that, did the event continue as normal?
Laura: Yes. In the moment it was significant, but there was really no pause in the programming. I was amazed at how much coverage the incident got, and I am pretty sure the event wouldn’t have been covered as widely if that did not happen. My parents saw it in the New York Times.
JLiving: What was their reaction?
Laura: Oh, they were so proud of me anyway, but now they had kvelling evidence! We all laughed – who would have thought I would have been in the paper, and that this is how I would get to the White House?
JLiving: Then came the dreidel portion.
Laura: Looking back at the video, I realize how fully engaged President Clinton was and how perfectly happy he was playing with the children. He picked up the game quickly and did pretty well. He won the whole pot on the first try!
JLiving: How did the event end?
Laura: We all got to shake the President’s hand, received M&Ms with the Presidential seal, walked back to our van, and headed back to the DCJCC.
JLiving: That was a pretty impressive first night of Hanukkah. How were the kids when you got back, and how do you top that for the rest of the holiday?
Laura: The kids were great. They ate gelt, and they acted appropriately 4, 5, and 6 years old. We went right back to life as normal. I admit I was stunned when I saw Ilana on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno talking about what had happened.
JLiving: Would you light another candle at the White House?
Laura: These days, I work as a federal employee for the US Department of Education, so you never know! I certainly wouldn’t turn down an invitation to do it again