The wandering Arkansan’s daughter

The wandering Arkansan’s daughter

Ridgewood rabbi tells the story of the Clintons’ visit to his family’s seder

Rabbi Robert and Helene Fine meet President Bill Clinton at the White House in December 2000, a few months after they hosted Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at their seder. (Bob Fine)
Rabbi Robert and Helene Fine meet President Bill Clinton at the White House in December 2000, a few months after they hosted Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at their seder. (Bob Fine)

Why was that seder night different from every other seder night?

Of course, we know, every seder is different from every other seder — different foods, different traditions, some people missing, others newly present, new wine stains every year — but in 2000, the guests at Helene and Rabbi Robert Fine’s seder in Chappaqua, N.Y., included Hillary and Chelsea Clinton.

It also included about 15 other family members and friends. Rabbi Robert Fine, who since has retired, led Bet Torah, the Conservative shul right over the town line in Mount Kisco. The Fines’ three sons were there, of course, as the oldest son, Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine, remembers.

David Fine, then newly ordained, working on his doctorate and at the Rabbinical Assembly, now is the rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood. He remembers the evening clearly.

The guests were not the only people in the room. There also were large-ish men in suits, with discreet cords coming out of their ears, eating nothing, drinking only water, standing with their backs to the walls, unblinkingly watchful.

“I always thought of bodyguards like the Roman ones, who would taste everything first,” David said. “But these didn’t. It wouldn’t have been professional.” Instead, they checked everything very thoroughly — “they did their perimeter work,” he added — and then just stood there, blending in, eventually becoming unnoticed background to the lively discussion in the center of the room.

“It was the most secure seder I’d ever been to,” David said.

For context, Bill Clinton was finishing up his second term as president, the Monica Lewinsky scandal still was raging, and the Clintons, who still lived in the White House, had bought their house in Chappaqua. Hillary was taking her “listening tour,” as she called it, touring her new state and running for the Senate — an election that she won that fall. Chelsea was in college at Stanford. So was David’s younger brother, Yoni. Everything flowed naturally. Yoni and Chelsea were in the same social circle, they lived in the same town, Yoni invited Chelsea and her mother, along with other friends, and they came.

18-2-L-jta-hillary-thanks-0415“We thought that they must have been in Chappaqua, but no, they had been in Washington,” David said. “They flew to the airport in Westchester to get there.”

Bill Clinton had been invited too, and until an hour or so before the seder, no one knew whether he’d show up. But as it turned out he couldn’t. He’d been meeting with Yasser Arafat.

“At the very end of his memoir, ‘My Life,’ Bill Clinton tells a story about his last day in office,” David said. “He wrote that he got a call from Arafat, who said, ‘You are a great man.’ And Clinton said ‘No, I am not a great man. I am a failure. And you are the one who made me that.’

“When I read that, I was like, ‘Yeah. And had you known that then, you could have come to my seder.’”

“What was so special was that it was off the calendar,” David said. It was a truly private event; a real seder, a traditional one. There could be no photographs and no recordings, because it was a chag, so there were no artificial constraints. Just a bunch of people sitting around the table, talking.

“It wasn’t at all used for public gain,” he continued. “It was a time for Hillary to make friends — real friends, not political ones — and to be with her daughter and her daughter’s friends. It was purely genuine. People say that she’s phony, that everything’s political, but in my experience that couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

“She didn’t want any publicity from it,” Bob Fine, the brothers’ father, said. “Her agenda was to meet some of the kids her daughter hangs out with in college.”

Or, as David’s middle brother, Josh, put it, “She came more as a mom than as the first lady or a Senate candidate.”

At first, David said, everyone made small talk, but the “elephant in the room — the fact that this was the first family of the United States” — remained unmentioned. But when the seder started, “we went around the table, and everyone read a passage from the Haggadah. Chelsea was the one who read the part about “My father was a wandering Aramean.” I said, ‘I knew that there was something about your father!’

“And then, when everyone finished laughing, Hillary, who was sitting next to her, came out with a whole midrash. She said, ‘Yes, her father was a wandering Arkansan, and he journeyed down to Washington, where he was oppressed with hard labor, until he was taken out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.’

“I retell that story every year, about the midrash I heard from the first lady of the United States, because it was so funny, and also because it does exactly what it was supposed to do. The actual purpose of the text is that you recount the story of our ancestors, and you personalize it. You see your own story through the exodus from Egypt. That is exactly what Hillary did. She said, ‘We have been through difficult times, and we pulled through.’ That was their personal story.

“After that, it was a very traditional seder,” David said. They retold the story of the Exodus, and they talked, and they sat for six hours, enjoying the evening, learning from each other.

There were a few unexpected bumps, but none of them were out of the ordinary. Chelsea was a vegetarian; the main course, onion-smothered brisket, was not ideal. And Ms. Fine, a full-time English teacher, always short on time, made tzimmes with prunes that still had pits. She watched, with dismay turning to awe, as Hillary Clinton removed them from her mouth, sliding them discreetly onto a soup spoon, calling no attention to the problem. “I could see that she was properly trained in table etiquette,” Ms. Fine said.

Hillary Clinton paid attention to the guests, the Fines report. Josh, then in his last year at Harvard Law School, said that he’d applied to be a speaker at his commencement. When Ms. Clinton later called the Fines to thank them for their hospitality, she followed up. Did Josh end up as commencement speaker, she asked.

“She remembered details, despite everything she had going on,” Josh said.

David Fine has a similar story. “I had wanted to go to Germany that summer for Expo 2000,” he said. (Expo is a world’s fair; it was held in Hanover that year.) “I was trying to convince my brother Yoni that he should go with me. It would be fun, and it would be good bonding for us. At the end of the seder, Hillary said, ‘I hope you get to go to Germany with your brother.’

“Later, I got to use that as ammunition, and we went together, and we had a great time, thanks to Hillary Clinton.”

Uriel Heilman of JTA contributed to this report.

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