From the Archives: Hanukkah at the White House

Ed. note: Today at 4:10 ET, tune in to to see President Obama deliver remarks at a White House Hanukkah Reception

  • Menorah presented to Harry S. Truman by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel on May 8, 1951.

    Menorah presented to Harry S. Truman by Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion of Israel on May 8, 1951.

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  • David Ben-Gurion, Israeli Prime Minister, and Abba Eban, Israeli Ambassador to the United States, presented Harry S. Truman with a menorah in the White House on May 8th, 1951.
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  • Jimmy Carter lights a menorah at the White House Ellipse, December 7, 1979.
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  • Ronald Reagan receives a Menorah from the Friends of Lubavitch in the Oval Office on December 17, 1979.
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  • Silver menorah given to Ronald Reagan by the Friends of Lubavitch on December 15, 1987.
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  • George Bush participates in a Hanukkah Celebration in the Old Executive Office Building on December 21, 1989.
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  • Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton at a Hanukkah celebration in the Oval Office, December 21, 2000.
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  • Yariv Ben-Eliezer, grandson of David Ben-Gurion, and Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of Harry S. Truman, light the menorah for the annual White House Hanukkah Reception, December 15, 2008.
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  • President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host a Hanukkah reception in the Grand Foyer of the White House, Dec. 16, 2009. (Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton)
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  • George W. Bush in the Grand Foyer of the White House before the menorah lighting ceremony for Hanukkah on December 15, 2008.
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Among the gifts from heads of state that are in the holdings of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum is a menorah presented to President Truman by Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. The menorah dates back to at least 1767, when it was donated to a synagogue in Buergel, Germany. 

The menorah was used in the synagogue until 1913, when it was found broken in pieces.  A man by the name of Siegfried Guggenheim asked for the broken pieces and provided a replacement. The Guggenheim family restored the old menorah for their personal use, and brought it to the United States when they immigrated in the 1930s.  Eventually, the menorah was acquired by the Jewish Museum in New York. 

When Prime Minister Ben-Gurion visited the United States in 1951, he searched for a suitable gift to give to Harry S. Truman in light of the President’s recognition and support of the State of Israel.  The Jewish Museum suggested the menorah, and Prime Minister Ben-Gurion presented it to Truman on his birthday, May 8, 1951.

In 1979, Jimmy Carter participated in lighting a Hanukkah menorah on the Ellipse, just south of the White House.  Each President since then has commemorated Hanukkah at the White House.  The ceremonies have ranged from small presentations in the Oval Office to large parties with the First Family, but they have all shared the common element of a Hanukkah menorah. 

Throughout his Presidency, Ronald Reagan received a menorah in the Oval Office to mark the lighting of the menorah on the Ellipse.  George Bush invited children to light candles at the Old Executive Building adjacent to the White House.  William J. Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton continued this tradition by hosting Hanukkah gatherings in the Oval Office with children from local schools and synagogues. 

Former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush initiated a new tradition in 2001, when the Hanukkah menorah was lit for the first time in the White House Residence.  Over the next seven years, the President and First Lady participated in Menorah Lighting Ceremonies in the East Wing, the Grand Foyer, and different parts of the White House. 

In 2008, the tradition came full circle when the menorah that was given to Harry S. Truman from David Ben-Gurion returned to the White House to be lit in a Hanukkah ceremony.  Clifton Truman Daniel, grandson of President Truman, and Yariv Ben-Eliezer, grandson of Prime Minister Ben-Guiron, participated in the lighting.  The George W. Bush Administration borrowed the menorah from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum, where it is currently on exhibit.

President and Mrs. Barack Obama have continued the tradition of hosting Hanukkah celebrations at the White House, including candle lighting ceremonies and receptions.

In honor of the Festival of Lights that is currently in progress, here is a gallery of Presidential Hanukkah celebrations and menorahs from the holdings of the Presidential Libraries of the National Archives.

Susan K. Donius is the Director of the Office of Presidential Libraries at the National Archives and Records Administration.

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