President Donald Trump’s Hanukkah reception—set to take place on Wednesday evening, despite the eight-day holiday’s actual start on Thursday evening, and double despite the risk of it turning into a COVID-19 superspreader event—has a decent shot at becoming the most infamous Hanukkah in White House history. But it wouldn’t be without some competition. That’s because in 1993, a little girl’s hair caught fire at the White House’s Hanukkah celebration. What’s more, President Bill Clinton put the fire out himself—with his hands.
What!? Clinton’s festival of lights feat made headlines at the time—“Clinton Extinquishes Small Ponytail Blaze” in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, “It’s a Hair-Raising Hanukkah Party in the Oval Office” in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution—but it was only when podcaster Jody Avirgan raised this tantalizing bit of Hanukkah lore that Slate decided to investigate further. We were lucky enough to reach Ilana Kattan, who is currently a 33-year-old antitrust lawyer in Washington but who, one fateful night 27 years ago, had a very memorable encounter with a menorah and the commander-in-chief. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
Slate: Let’s start with your version of the story.
Ilana Kattan: So I was 6, and everybody was really excited—as part of this afterschool program that was connected to my school, which was the only Jewish school in D.C., we were invited to go to the White House and celebrate Hanukkah. When they lit the menorah, I think I probably got a little tired and was just kind of leaning against the desk and my ponytail dipped into the flame. I remember standing there and then people just—their expressions changed. Bill Clinton had his hand around my ponytail and all of these people, I don’t know if they were Secret Service or there were a lot of reporters as well, but all these people started rushing toward me. I was kind of like, “What’s happening?” I mean, it’s your hair. You don’t really feel it. You don’t have any pain sensors in your hair. It all happened really quickly. This is my first-person account, but obviously I didn’t watch it happen. I’ve seen the video.
There used to be, at least. It’s of the whole event. [Update, 9:40 P.M.: A Twitter user located the video on YouTube.]
Did you feel particularly grateful to Clinton for saving you?
At the time, I thought it was really sweet. Everybody was really thankful that he jumped in and he acted really quickly, and he did it with his hands. He just acted like he had a father instinct.
Have you ever encountered him again?
No. I don’t think we run in the same circles.
Would you say anything to him if you met him?
Yeah. I’d be like, “Hey, do you remember that time back in ’93, when you touched my hair, put some fire out, and it was a whole media frenzy?” I wonder if he would remember it. Who knows?
Do you remember how the other kids reacted when it happened?
Honestly, I’m not even sure if many of the kids noticed as much as the parents. After the fact, parents found out about it. The kids, you know, they were just so happy to meet the president and to get M&Ms.
When you leave—I don’t know if this is all the time, or just our visit—but they gave us these M&Ms with the presidential seal on them.
What else do you remember?
Everyone else was very nicely dressed and I must’ve been going through a phase, because I was wearing a hot pink Ninja Turtles T-shirt, black leggings, and sneakers. There are pictures of this. I’m pretty sure it was an Israeli Ninja Turtles T-shirt. My parents are a little embarrassed. I was very much not a dress person when I was a kid. I am now, but I was not then.
Was there any lasting damage to your hair? Did you have to get a haircut or something to deal with it?
No, no. I mean, honestly it was a minor singe from my perspective. People said it smelled like singed hair for a bit, but yeah, no, nothing.
Jody, the journalist who raised this on Twitter, lamented that it was lost to history whether it was a “shamash candle, a menorah candle, or some other rogue candle” that set fire to your hair. Can you fill in the record on this?
Let me see. I have a book with a lot of cutouts that people sent to me of articles, and it has some of the pictures in it. If [the menorah] was one where it had the tall shamash, then it was probably that, but I have no idea. It was so long ago.
Did it all feel like a big deal at the time?
I didn’t think it was really significant, but it became a huge thing, which is kind of amazing. I ended up on The Tonight Show and a lot of news programs. And then my family in Israel was sending us articles from their newspapers. People were proud that the American president saved an Israeli girl.
What was going on The Tonight Show like as a kid?
That was really cool. I got to fly out to California, and I remember I was sitting in the green room, and they sent me all this candy and all these sweets. I totally remember all of it. Jay Leno was very, very nice.
What did your family think of the whole thing?
They thought it was hilarious. They thought, “How is this huge news?” But they love the story as well.
I know my grandparents were really proud that the American president saved my life. I think my grandmother wrote a letter to him. I think she thinks that he wrote her back. It probably was a staffer. She never thought that her granddaughter would have been saved by an American president.
As big as it felt then, I think it might be even bigger news if it happened today. Everyone would know instantly. Can you imagine?
True. It would go viral.
How often does this story come up in your day-to-day life?
Not that often. People Google me and one of the first things that comes is my law firm profile and probably somewhere below that is, you know, the incident. My name is so distinct that people know it was me. I do post on it every year on the anniversary, to remind people not to stand too close to flames. But I mean like in law school or when you’re starting something new, there’s always a time to tell an icebreaker kind of fact. I tell this, and it’s sort of a mic drop.
Yeah, I would not want to follow you in an icebreakers game.
I wouldn’t want to follow me either.
I know history can get distorted over the years as stories get passed around, so is there anything you feel like people get wrong about what happened?
At the time, we heard kind of every pronunciation of my name possible. People were adding N’s and all these letters. But there really aren’t any misconceptions other than how to pronounce my name. It’s Ih-LAH-nah Kuh-TAHN.
Has your hair ever caught fire again?
No, no. Not to my knowledge. But even for Hanukkah now, I don’t like lighting candles in my own condo. I don’t usually. I’m fine lighting in other people’s houses, but I think I’m a little bit more cautious around fire.
So you still make a point of celebrating Hanukkah? I know it can be less of a big deal when you’re an adult.
I actually think it’s kind of more of a big deal when you’re an adult, because you kind of get more into the memorabilia, like you get the nice chanukkiyah, or menorah in English, and then, you know, the nice dreidel and stuff like that. It’s different and it’s more decorating and giving gifts to friends than it is when you’re a kid. But I still celebrate it. It’s a great holiday.
Do you have any plans this year for pandemic Hanukkah?
That depends. My parents live in McLean, in Virigina. I was going to go celebrate with them, but with the pandemic, you kind of have to think about everything, so TBD.
How do you feel about the song “Girl on Fire”?
I actually don’t know that song. Who sings it?
I think it’s Alicia Keys. [sings] “This girl is on fire.”
I don’t know it.
I think it’s a thing in the Hunger Games books as well, a character is referred to as “the girl on fire.” Do you identify with that at all?
No, I definitely don’t.
I am embarrassed about this question, so I’m going to blame one of my colleagues for making me ask: If Bill hadn’t put the fire out, would it have burned for eight nights?
It would have been a Hanukkah miracle.