For centuries, the lights of the Hanukkah menorah have inspired hope and courage. They may have also been responsible for inspiring then–General George Washington to forge on when everything looked bleak when his cold and hungry Continental Army camped at Valley Forge in the winter of 1777/8. The story is told that Washington was walking among his troops when he saw one soldier sitting apart from the others, huddled over what looked like two tiny flames. Washington approached the soldier and asked him what he was doing. The soldier explained that he was a Jew and he had lit the candles to celebrate Hanukkah, the festival commemorating the miraculous victory of his people so many centuries ago over the tyranny of a much better equipped and more powerful enemy who had sought to deny them their freedom. The soldier then expressed his confidence that just as, with the help of God, the Jews of ancient times were ultimately victorious, so too would they be victorious in their just cause for freedom. Washington thanked the soldier and walked back to where the rest of the troops camped, warmed by the inspiration of those little flames and the knowledge that miracles are possible.
Whether or not Rabbi Susan Grossman’s account is true, it took the presidency a while to acknowledge the Jewish Festival of Lights. Sure, Jimmy Carter may have lit the National Menorah, but the White House has only hosted an official annual Hanukkah party since 2001.
Awkward photo ops, however, are a December perennial. Now, unless you are an adept lip-reader, you’re probably not going to get much out of this piece of archival news-reel footage. However: at minute two, you will need no subtitles to appreciate Harry Truman’s good-natured bafflement when David Ben Gurion presents him with a large menorah.
It looks like the prime minister is instructing, “You put the candles here! Like this! Like the Maccabees!”
“Well!” you can almost hear Truman saying. “Well, isn’t that something! That’s a fine piece of craftsmanship! Fine! Let’s just put this down here, shall we? And I know Bess and I will enjoy it very much!” Hey, miracles are possible.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.