By Melody Amsel-Arieli
Chanukah, the Festival of Lights, falls during the darkest time of the year. But in homes where each family member lights his or her own menorah, Chanukah burns extra bright.
The simplest, most ancient menorah of all, rows of glasses containing wicks filled with olive oil, celebrates the Chanukah miracle itself. Even today, many observant families in Israel light multitudes of oil menorahs, displaying them in protective glass boxes outside on their doorsteps for all to see. Other families, also blessed with many children, light five, six, seven or more at their windows, illuminating the streets below. During Chanukah, even the darkest corners of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem’s fervently Orthodox neighborhood, sing with light.
The rest of us celebrate Chanukah in the glow of a single menorah. But many people own several, enjoying their significance, beauty and charm year-round. The choice of traditional menorahs, for collectors, is wide. Menorahs, after all, span centuries of history and hail from every place on earth that has welcomed Jews.
Menorahs from lands blessed with olive groves are generally oil-based, edged with rows of eight tiny oil fonts. Italian cast metal wall menorahs often feature backdrops adorned with mythical or biblical figures amid Renaissance-style scrolled clusters of fruit and florals. Moroccan wall menorahs typically incorporate stylized birds into intricate, openwork arabesques reminiscent of North African architecture. Middle Eastern menorahs may feature Islamic stars, crescents and hamsas, hand-shaped good luck symbols. The oldest surviving Franco-German menorahs, with pierced triangular backplanes, are also oil lamps. But their owners, instead of olive oil, probably lit wicks dipped in goose fat, before enjoying their savory goose-fat latkes.
Authentic vintage menorahs like these, rare indeed, are generally found in either private collections or museums. Inexpensive reproductions, happily, are readily available. Collections of oil-based wall menorahs make stunning decorative displays.
The charm of oil menorahs notwithstanding, most Jews today prefer reciting the Chanukah blessings over convenient, colorful holiday candles. Many antique German eight-branched holiday candelabras are stately, featuring simple or finely scrolled branches. Others are shaped like Trees of Life. Their spreading branches are often adorned with clinging vines, roses, berries, grape leaves or flocks of birds.
Brass backplate menorahs, which afforded artisans ample room for embellishment, became popular during the 17th century. Many feature embossed jugs of oil, crowns, pairs of rampant Lions of Judah, Torahs, Stars of David or family crests. German, Bohemian and Moravian artists wrought similar ones in pewter, while Romans and Venetians worked in silver.
Polish artisans often produced brass backplate menorahs depicting noble animals like stags, lions, griffins and eagles. Their silver versions, sometimes backed with resplendent scroll-shaped plates, may feature architectural structures, like pillars or double doorways, enclosing Torah scrolls. Some are embellished further with Levantine palm trees and swirls of flowers.
Contemporary silversmiths, inspired by these Polish menorahs, often adorn theirs with similar flourishes and decorative columns. Some also emboss highly detailed scenes of Jerusalem amid traditional Hebrew inscriptions.
All menorahs, whether oil- or candle-based, must display eight lights at uniform height, flanked by a ninth, a “servant” (shamash) that illuminates the others. These religious restrictions, rather than limiting craftsmen, have inspired them. Naturally, backplate menorahs, eight-branched candelabras and those resembling Trees of Life will always be popular. But recently, an exciting array of contemporary designs have joined these perennial favorites.
Today, anything goes. Reproductions of clay oil lamps fan out gracefully along metallic semicircle bases. Fused glass menorahs, as colorful as the candles they hold, are created with techniques dating back to biblical times. Crystal and acrylic menorahs shimmer with candlelight. Zabari’s freeform “molten” menorah spins silver to new heights, while Rashid’s amorphous, hot-hued Menorahmorphs defy gravity.
Menorahs, explains Susan Braunstein, curator of archaeology and Judaica at New York’s Jewish Museum, which houses the world’s foremost collection, can be made of “ found or secular materials, for example, artillery shells and bullets.” To wit, consider Joel Otterson’s Unorthodox Menorah, a veritable mishmash of mixed metal pipes, cast bronze, porcelain and glass.
Some modern menorahs, pure whimsy, delight the young and not-so-young alike. Sports fans can field baseball, soccer or karate models. Animal lovers can light up ladybug, giraffe or crocodile menorahs. Ballerinas, musicians, butterfly collectors and mah jongg fans will all find their hearts’ delights. There are also plush, inflatable, stackable and anodized aluminum puzzle menorahs. There is even a Miss Liberty menorah, actually eight of her in a row.
Not surprisingly, many modern menorahs marry whimsy with tradition. Colorful, upbeat renditions of Noah’s Ark, “Fiddler on the Roof” and Maccabee menorahs are popular choices.
Whether our menorahs are classic or contemporary, gold or silver, whimsical or serious, in the end, it all comes down to tradition. Around the world, we all recite the same blessings and sing the same songs. During Chanukah, the darkest time of the year, our homes and our hearts sing with light.
Melody Amsel-Arieli lives in Maaleh Adumim, Israel. She is the author of “Between Galicia and Hungary: The Jews of Stropkov” (www.avotaynu.com/books/stropkov.htm). Her clips can be found at amselbird.tripod.com.