WASHINGTON — The smell of latkes — fresh potato pancakes — wafted over the National Mall on Tuesday as Vice President Joe Biden marked the first night of Hanukkah.
On the Ellipse outside the White House, Biden passed a torch to a rabbi who was then lifted high into the air as he lit the national menorah, with a trio of cantors singing traditional Hanukkah songs. Biden told the crowd gathered that Hanukkah is about the miracle of courageous warriors overcoming great odds to protect their people’s culture and dignity.
Biden cited the work of Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poet whose words are inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, and George Washington’s letter to the Newport, R.I., Jewish community, which quoted from the Book of Micah in promising Jews religious freedoms.
“The central Jewish notion of religious freedom, of safety in your land, of being treated with dignity in your own community, not only led to the creation of modern Israel but it also formed the bedrock of the United States of America,” Biden said. “Jewish values are such an essential part of who we are that it is fair to say that Jewish heritage is American heritage.”
Biden noted at the event that he was missing candle lighting at the home of his daughter, Ashley, who is married to a Jewish physician, Howard Krein.
President Barack Obama, in a statement, said the holiday “brims with possibility and hope,” reminding people that even the most daunting challenges can be overcome.
“Even in the darkest, shortest days of winter, the Festival of Lights brims with possibility and hope,” he said. “The courage of the Maccabees reminds us that we too can overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. The candles of the Menorah remind us that even the smallest light has the power to shine through the darkness. And the miracle at the heart of Hanukkah – the oil that lasted for eight nights instead of only one – reminds us that even when the future is uncertain, our best days are yet to come. The miracle at the heart of Hanukkah – the oil that lasted for eight nights instead of only one – reminds us that even when the future is uncertain, our best days are yet to come.”
“May this Hanukkah embolden us to do what is right, shine a light on the miracles we enjoy, and kindle in all of us the desire to share those miracles with others,” Obama added.
The lighting of the so-called National Menorah on the ellipse in front of the White House was launched in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter attended the first lighting.
It kicks off a week of parties in Washington, including at the White House and in Congress, both on Wednesday.
Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees after their victory over the Seleucids. The holiday started Tuesday evening.