Menorahs for Hanukkah in an Abundance
of Colors, Forms and Styles
by Suzanne Wilson
“I loved doing Hanukkah as a kid,” said Emily Rosenfeld, recalling her childhood in St. Louis, Mo. Though her family wasn’t deeply religious, Rosenfeld always liked the ritual of lighting the menorah with her mother and watching the flickering candles, one for each night of the eight-day festival.
The menorah — a nine-branched candelabrum — was a simple design made out of brass — “like everyone else’s,” says Rosenfeld.
Though plenty of menorahs still look exactly like that one, Rosenfeld, an artist with a studio in the Arts and Industry Building in Florence, now creates some that are more distinctive.
The one on display in her studio one recent day bore little resemblance to those she grew up with. It was, first of all, created in nine separate pieces, rather than as a single unit holding nine candles. The pieces were made out of resin that had been colored a luminous cornflower blue — a far cry from standard-issue brass.
Rosenfeld, 38, said she made it that way in part to appeal to children. The candleholders, decorated with flowers, are small enough to be held in a child’s hand, making it easy for the candles to help arrange and set them out before they're lit.
“I wanted it to have a whimsical touch and a toy-like quality,” she said. But the appeal of Rosenfeld’s menorah, which sells for $165 at Northampton’s Artisan Gallery, apparently extends to adults as well. Rosenfeld heard of one customer who divided the pieces up among the grown children in her family who had scattered to different parts of the country. Now, when they come together for the holidays, they bring their pieces with them and light the menorah together.
Rosenfeld said she was happy to hear of one of her menorahs being put to such good use. “People get it!”
Old Symbol, New Styles
Menorahs have long symbolized Hanukkah, the holiday that celebrates the preservation of Jewish culture and tradition in the face of oppression.
These days, though, they come in designs and colors to suit every taste — and there doesn’t seem to be a single reason behind that proliferation of choice. It reflects, some say, the growth in interest in recent years in the arts and crafts movement, in creating unique pieces that define both artist and owner. It may also, others say, reflect the increased visibility of Hanukkah — never considered one of the major Jewish holidays — at a time when the commercialization of Christmas knows no bounds. Northampton artist Kathy Goos has been making menorahs for more than 20 years, in addition to her other lines of functional pottery. She started out more than 20 years ago in Cambridge and sold her menorahs in a store there that specialized in Judaica — objects related directly to Jewish religion and folk customs. At that time, most of her designs were fairly traditional.
But the other night, as she showed a visitor the menorahs she makes and sells at her Northampton studio, it was easy to pick out her more recent works. One featured a desert scene complete with a row of camels, with the camels’ backs serving as candleholders. Her inspiration? A camel-shaped cookie cutter she happened to have that got her thinking about creating animals in clay. Others featured lavender flowers and other soft spring colors, used to create the Hebrew letters for the word “shalom,” or peace. Those, she said, reflect her own passion for gardening.
“I do think people are looking for menorahs that express their individuality,” said Goos, whose prices range between $70 and $125. And they are also, she believes, drawn to objects that link them to the rituals of their faith.
In the home she shares with her husband, Barry Werth, and their children, Emily and Alex, Goos keeps several menorahs — all of which the family lights each year. One that she found on a trip to Mexico is made from tin and features a dove in the center set against a Star of David. Another is one of her own stoneware creations. And then there’s the sentimental favorite — a menorah showing Noah and several creatures from the ark that her children made when they were little.
Even though her children are now teen-agers with busy schedules, Goos says they still try to gather every night after sundown to light the candles.
It’s a time and a ritual that has lost none of its beauty, she says. “The whole season is about light.”
A Sheltered Place
Hanukkah, which this year begins tomorrow, commemorates both a political event and a miracle. Though there have been differing accounts and ambiguous interpretations of aspects of the historical record, the most common narrative is that Hanukkah is held in memory of a rebellion led by a Jewish family, the Maccabees, against Greek oppressors over 2,000 years ago.
In 167 BCE (before Common Era) Jews in Israel were threatened by the Hellenistic culture of the time. The Maccabees, a dynastic family, began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and eventually triumphed, liberating Jerusalem and its temple.
When the Maccabees and their followers returned to Jerusalem, they wanted to light the temple’s lamps, but could only find enough oil to keep them lit for a day. But when they lit the temple menorah, the oil lasted for eight days.
On most menorahs, there is one candle, called the shammash, which means helper, that is set apart from the others. The shammash is lit first, after sundown, and is used to light one candle on the first day of Hanukkah, two on the second and so on.
Prayers are Recited During the Ceremony.
The shammash is usually placed in the center, and slightly higher than the rest. Though menorahs these days generally use candles, the original Hanukkah story speaks of lighting the lamp with oil — and some still do.
“One of the more distinctive menorahs made by potter Emmett Leader of Northampton does just that. Built to resemble a shelter, the menorah has an intimacy about it that invites you to lean in and look closer. A shelf divides the interior space in half and Leader has placed small vessels for the oil on the shelf.
Leader, who lived in Israel for several years in the early ’80s, made the menorah when he was there. During that time, he visited the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and was struck, he recalls, by the extraordinary range of styles in the museum’s display of menorahs.
Collected from around the world, they were made out of a variety of materials — clay, glass, metal, wood — in many sizes and shapes — an artistic “free-for-all,” as he puts it. The structure of some, he says, reflected the architectural influences of the regions they came from.
Leader, 47, grew up in an area of Vermont where there were few Jews and the feeling of being part of a community was hard to come by. He began making menorahs and other kinds of pieces associated with Jewish traditions as a way of forging a more personal connection with his faith.
The menorahs he makes today, which sell for about $250, reflect Leader’s interest in the past and are decorated with images inspired by historical synagogues, grave carvings and European village architecture. The backdrop behind the candles in one, for example, depicts an eastern European village, or shetl. Leader sells his menorahs at craft fairs and stores around the country that specialize in Judaica. This year, Leader said, his shelter-style menorah will probably be the one he and his wife, Rebecca Schacter, and daughters Rachel and Amaliah, ages 5 and 6, light for Hanukkah. As is the practice with many families, they may light more than one, especially if they get together with friends who bring over their own.
The closeness of being with family and friends and the sight of multiple menorahs burning together — “It’s just very cool,” Leader said.
Late last Sunday morning at Congregation B’Nai Israel in Northampton, a young boy paused to look over a table filled with shiny menorahs.
“Is that real gold?” he asked.
Debra Hertz smiled and assured him it was not. “Honey, it would be so much more expensive,” she said.
Hertz, co-chair of the Sisterhood at the synagogue, was on hand to help organize the sale of Hanukkah-related items — everything from greeting cards to candles to chocolate Maccabee figures to packs of bubble gum in wrappers printed in Hebrew. Profits from the sale, which continues this Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to noon, support synagogue activities and programs.
One table in the crowded hallway was filled with more than a couple dozen menorahs that ranged in price from $8 to $55. Among them were several of the electric menorahs that have become increasingly popular in recent years, Hertz said. They’re safe for families with very young children and, she added, many people these days like to put them in their windows.
Family traditions grow up around menorahs, Hertz said. In many families, each child has one to call his or her own. Some parents give sons and daughters going off to college menorahs to take along to mark the holiday if they won’t be home. And elderly parents sometimes pass menorahs they’ve had for years on to their grown children.
This year, Hertz and her family will, for the first time, light a brass menorah that used to belong to her mother, who’s now in her 80s. Hertz plans to give one of the menorahs she’s been using up until now to her oldest daughter, who will be going on to college next year.
The synagogue sale’s niche is to offer affordable menorahs — not the pricier ones more apt to be found in galleries and craft stores, or stores specializing in Judaica.
The Don Muller Gallery on Main Street in Northampton has offered menorahs for many years. This year, Muller has, among others, blown-glass menorahs made by Joel Bliss of Glasslight Inc. of Pennsylvania; wrought-iron menorahs made by Warner Designs of Rockport, NY; and stone and silver menorahs made by Ayala Bar of Israel. Prices generally range from $100 to $220.
Menorahs are carried in several other downtown stores, including Beyond Words, which offers many that are moderately priced, and Pinch, also on Main Street, which carries brightly colored, fanciful metal menorahs designed by Karen Rossi.
For some of those who make them, the menorahs are a way to reconnect with their heritage and with the past.
“I reached back to familiar images and tried to find ways to make them my own,” says Emily Rosenfeld, whose work is sold locally at the Artisan Gallery, at craft stores around the country, and through catalogs.
“Rosenfeld’s Judaica also includes jewelry, such as pendants with Stars of David, and mezuzah boxes, containers for the holiest of prayers. Judaica now accounts, she says, for about 75 percent of her business.
Though she still doesn’t consider herself a religious person, Rosenfeld says that creating Judaica “has given me much more respect and interest in my faith than I used to have. ... I feel it’s allowed me to enter and appreciate the traditions of Judaism in a whole new way.”
Suzanne Wilson can be reached at email@example.com.