‘Elements of Hanukkah’
By Rachel Gross Weinstein
Sculptor George Tobolowsky uses found objects to produce his works of art. He recently created menorahs and sculptures highlighting the meaning of Chanukah, which are now on display at the Museum of Biblical Art.
The exhibit, called “The Elements of Hanukkah” opened on Nov. 6 and will run through Jan. 12, 2014. It features various menorahs made with items like U-bolts and wrenches, and tells the story of Chanukah through sculptures called “The Maccabean Warrior,” “The Destruction” and “Fighting Fire.”
Tobolowsky wants members of both the Jewish and non-Jewish communities to learn more about Chanukah, its history and how it can be highlighted in different ways.
“I want everyone to get an appreciation for found-object art, and learn a little bit more about Chanukah, menorahs and Jewish history,” Tobolowsky said. “The Chanukah menorah is unique in that it’s only used one time a year, and 90 percent of all Jewish homes have one. After studying about menorahs and reading about the history, I came up with my own interpretations of them.”
Those interpretations are what make the exhibit unique. One of the menorahs is made from recycled torches, while another called “The War Menorah” uses stainless steel and bombshell casings. Tobolowsky also makes his own stands, which many of the menorahs are set on.
The artist has produced more than 350 sculptures in the last 10 years and created his first piece of Jewish ceremonial art last year — a menorah owned by the Museum of Biblical Art. It takes Tobolowsky anywhere from a week to 10 days to make smaller pieces, and up to one month for larger ones. He often works on multiple projects at a time.
His sculptures are featured throughout Dallas, at the University of Texas and Texas A&M, and in San Antonio, Chicago, New York and other cities. He is currently working on sculptures for a memorial in West, Texas, the site of a devastating fertilizer plant explosion earlier this year that killed 15 people; that tragedy also inspired the “Fighting Fire” sculpture featured in the Chanukah exhibit.
All of the pieces in the show were completed during the past year, Tobolowsky said. He read many books about menorahs to learn about the history, and that’s also part of what inspired his creations.
“The history is very interesting to me, and I learned about both the importance of the menorah and about the religious side of it,” he said. “Every piece [in the exhibit] has a circle in it, which represents that continuation of life. Found objects like U-bolts also lend themselves to a nice design for a menorah. When viewing the menorahs and sculptures, I like seeing the relationship from one piece to the next.”
Tobolowsky’s designs are wonderful and his ideas make them even more unique, said Museum of Biblical Art Curator Scott Peck. He believes anyone who sees this exhibit will be impacted by it.
“The Chanukah story is timeless and this is a really strong exhibit,” Peck said. “What better person to communicate the beauty of Chanukah than George Tobolowsky? It’s sophisticated and there is a lot of depth to his thinking. Each menorah and sculpture is different, and it’s a really great design. There is a lot of Jewish art around right now and we are happy to showcase something like this.”
Added Tobolowsky: “I am excited for people to see this exhibit, especially younger children who don’t know a lot about Judaism. Hopefully, the Jewish community will understand the Musuem of Biblical Art better after seeing this and will visit it more often. The whole purpose is to educate people.”
The Museum of Biblical Art is located at 7500 Park Lane in Dallas. It is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursdays; 1 to 5 p.m. on Sunday; and closed on Monday.
Regular admission is $12 and $10 for seniors and students. For more information, call 214-368-4622 or visit www.biblicalarts.org. For more information on Tobolowsky and his other work, visit www.georgetobolowsky.com.
History of the menorah
By Binyamin Kagedan/JNS.org
From the Chabad House to the White House, there are few more ubiquitous symbols of Jewish presence than the menorah.
From its first mention in the book of Exodus, the menorah has pervaded the literary and visual culture of the Jewish people, predating the Star of David as a uniquely Jewish insignia by at least a millennium. In fact, one rabbinic tradition suggests that the emblem on David’s shield was not a star at all, but a menorah! While the star is the centerpiece of Israel’s flag, the menorah was chosen as the nation’s coat of arms, and large, ornate menorahs grace both the Knesset and Ben Gurion Airport. Countless Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues weave the menorah image into their logos, and many have taken the word as their names. What is the story of this potent symbol, and why has it captured the hearts and imaginations of the Jewish people for so long?
Most people, including U.S. presidents, come across the menorah primarily on Chanukah. The technical name for the eight-branched candelabras lit each night of Chanukah is chanukiyah, a modern-Hebrew word. The word menorah is used colloquially for these ritual objects, but technically refers only to the seven-branched golden oil lamp meticulously described in God’s instructions to Moses regarding the building of the Tabernacle.
References to the menorah appear throughout the Bible, though is it not clear that it always looked the same, or that there was always just one in the temple; I Kings tells that Solomon had 10 golden menorahs made for his temple. Nevertheless, there is ample indication that a menorah existed in one form or another throughout the First and Second Temple periods. The iconic image found on the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting the menorah and other temple objects being carried away as the spoils of Roman victory over Judea, confirms that a seven-branched menorah was a part of Temple worship up until the end. Yet the whereabouts of the final menorah of the Second Temple remain a great mystery.
In his beautifully written work, “The Tree of Light: A Study of the Menorah,” L. Yarden suggests that the concept and form of the menorah are likely to have derived from the ancient mythological idea of the Tree of Life, found in different forms throughout the cultures of the ancient Middle East. Images of sacred seven-branched trees guarded by cherubic figures can be found on Persian pottery dating back to 2300 B.C., well before the centralization of Temple worship in ancient Israel. The almond tree, which is native to Israel and has special significance in Jewish lore and ritual, may have been the original inspiration for the menorah’s upward sloping design. It is quite possible that the menorah represents a blending of the Tree of Life idea with another important Israelite symbol of the divine presence, the luminous, ever-burning bush encountered by Moses. Indeed, the tradition surrounding the menorah tells that it was tended to day and night by the Temple priests so as to stay continuously lit, the original “Eternal Light” found in today’s sanctuaries.
Whereas, Yarden explains, the Star of David is never mentioned in canonical Jewish texts, nor does it appear on Jewish monuments before the Middle Ages, the menorah image can be found wherever Jews lived since the fall of the Second Temple, all across Europe and Asia. Synagogues built between 200 and 700 CE in Israel and beyond commonly sport menorahs carved into stone reliefs and laid into floor mosaics. Menorahs also adorn large numbers of Jewish gravestones from the throughout the post-Temple period, both within Israel and at various locations around the ancient Roman Empire: Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and Milan, as well places in Spain, Portugal, France and Greece. Yarden’s book offers dozens of examples of the centrality of the menorah in Jewish art and architecture past and present, including vivid photographs of original ancient pieces.
Jewish thinkers through the centuries have been drawn to the power and beauty of the menorah image and its effortless fusion of the natural with the man-made, of form with light. To Zechariah it was a beacon of the future redemption of Israel; to Josephus it represented the seven known planets that illuminate the cosmos; for Philo it manifested the light of divine wisdom; in the Zohar, it holds the primordial light of the ein sof, from which all being emanates; for Herzl, a metaphor for the possibility of Jewish national renaissance. Today, the menorah continues to capture the imaginations of rabbis and laypeople, artists and thinkers, religious and secular, an enduring symbol of eternal hope.
Binyamin Kagedan has an M.A. in Jewish Thought from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.