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Guess who’s coming to dinner?

The time Hillary and Chelsea came to the seder

Hillary Clinton’s letter to the Fine family after attending their Passover seder in 2000.
Hillary Clinton’s letter to the Fine family after attending their Passover seder in 2000.

How was Helene and Bob Fine’s family seder in 2000 different from every other Passover night?

First Lady Hillary Clinton and her daughter Chelsea came. (President Bill Clinton would have joined, too, but he was detained by a meeting with PLO leader Yasser Arafat.)

This was no political or community institution event. It was a genuine family seder at the Fines’ home with about 15 people, all family and friends, held on Passover’s first night. Helene made her traditional brisket and tzimmes, there were no photographers present, and the Clintons stayed for hours, the Fines recalled.

“She didn’t want publicity from it,” Bob Fine said. “She was real, she was personal, she participated in everything. She was one of the best seder guests we’ve ever had. Chelsea, too.”

At the time, Fine was the rabbi at the Conservative Bet Torah in Mount Kisco, the Westchester County village just down the road from Chappaqua, the New York suburb where the Clintons recently had bought a house in anticipation of Bill Clinton’s return to private life and Hillary’s run for the U.S. Senate from New York. One of the Fines’ sons, Yoni, attended Stanford University, where Chelsea also was a student. The two moved in the same circles and were friendly.

As Passover approached, Yoni mentioned to Chelsea that his parents lived just a mile or so down the road from Chappaqua and asked if she’d be in the neighborhood for spring break and would like to join them for seder. Chelsea said she’d love to and asked if she could bring her parents.

“Why not?” Yoni said.

At the seder, Hillary and Chelsea participated in lively discussions and stayed for about six hours, until around midnight, the Fines recalled.

“It turns out they weren’t going back to Chappaqua that night but to Washington, and they were supposed to leave by a certain time because their plane needed to take off before the suburban airport in the area closed for the night,” said Josh Fine, who was at the seder. “But they were so engaged in the conversation that they stayed about two hours later than they said they could.”

There was a bevy of preparations before the Clintons arrived. The Secret Service came to the house to check things out, scoping out the bathrooms, reviewing the guest list, instructing the Fines to leave the shades closed, and asking where the food came from.

“My wife looked at them strangely and said, ‘What do you mean?’” Bob Fine recalled. “They said, ‘Who’s the caterer?’ Helene told them, ‘I’m making all the food.’ The Secret Service guy hesitated. Then he whispered into his earpiece: ‘It’s being self-catered.’”

The Fines run a pretty traditional seder, with a lot of discussion, plenty of singing, and an old-school menu: shmura matza, gefilte fish, apple matzo kugel, brisket. They dip asparagus in salt water for the karpas course and real horseradish with endive for maror. Their Haggada, The Feast of Freedom, was the official one of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly.

During the Maggid section, which recounts the Jews’ oppression in Egypt before their eventual exodus, each participant around the table read a different section. Hillary Clinton had the part about a verse from Deuteronomy that translates as “My father was a wandering Aramean.” She talked about contemporary parallels of discrimination, including the ethnic conflict in Kosovo. Then she did a humorous riff on her own experience with wandering.

“She said, ‘My husband was a wandering politician, we went from Arkansas to Washington, we were oppressed by the press,’” Bob Fine recalled. “She just did a satire of it that was spectacular.”

Clinton’s seder visit never made it into the papers. Fine talked about it from his pulpit the next week, but that was pretty much it.

“I wanted to respect her request that she didn’t want any publicity from it,” he said. “Her agenda was not a political one. Her agenda was to meet some of the kids her daughter hangs out with at college, and she gave up a whole day in order to do that. That was more important than her own political interests in the state, where she was running for Senate.”

This year, the Fines aren’t expecting any celebrities for Passover. They’ll be in Denver with their children and grandchildren. Helene Fine already has ordered the brisket.  

She also may make tzimmes. But this time, no pits.

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