In the hands of artists, menorahs make a statement while commemorating the annual festival of lights
Artists and designers in the United States and Israel are broadening and updating the ways in which we pay tribute to Judah Maccabee through the emblematic menorah, commemorating the miraculous endurance of the fabled lighting oil and the resilience that keeps Judaism’s fire lit, so to speak.
"People who buy menorahs for themselves or for others buy them for longevity over generations, [not to] replace them from one year to the next," says renowned designer Brad Ascalon, whose menorahs and home accessories can be purchased through Southern California branches of Design Within Reach.
"My goal was simple. When the menorah is in use, it should be about the candles and the flames. The object in and of itself should recede to the background, allowing the candles to take over in significance. As for the other 357 days of the year, the menorah can remain on display and be appreciated as an elegant, modern sculptural object removed from its intended function but abundant in symbolism and story."
Other Southern California-based artists have a similar mind-set — balancing fashion and function with their renderings of the traditional candelabra. Some designs are delicate, fused from colorful glass or curving strands of metal that seem to defy gravity. Others are sturdy and industrial by nature, melding the pragmatic with the profound.
"Over the past several years, design has become increasingly more accessible," says Pam Balton, vice president of special projects at Skirball Cultural Center, referring to the eclectic collection of menorahs available at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball. "Architects are creating Judaica, and mainstream designers are including Chanukah lamps in their lines. A Chanukah lamp, a symbol of a miracle and light, is oftentimes a decorative sculptural element in a home to be enjoyed year round."
Santa Barbara-based Laurie Gross uses references from the past as a starting point for her pieces, rendered in a variety of mediums, including textiles and glass. In 1980, Gross came across a turn-of-the-century Russian chanukiah depicting a mother eagle feeding her young. She was intrigued by this artifact’s striking symbolic elements, including the bird’s wing supporting the baby birds and their open mouths serving as candle holders.
"I first began to explore the imagery of the wing, which seems to represent God’s all-encompassing and shielding presence, and [this motif] would find a place in some of my textile works," Gross recalls. "However, the opportunity to reinvent the turn-of-the-century artifact in a contemporary context surfaced when I was invited to participate in the Chanukah menorah show at the Jewish Museum in San Francisco in 1995. My goal with this piece rendered in art glass, titled ‘Of Lights, Knots and Nourishment,’ was to bring together concept, imagery and function."
Gross’ sweeping menorah is fashioned from two pieces of starfire glass that are etched, gold-leafed and contoured. The design on the back piece that holds the shamash candle reflects the expansive and enveloping wings. The front piece holding the eight candles evokes the gesture of receiving and the openness of the young. "Knots" of the tzitzit have a lyrical sense of movement that can be interpreted as the passage of time or the omnipresence of God.
Josh Korwin and Alyssa Zukas, in contrast, take a literal nuts-and-bolts approach to menorah design with a guy-friendly, recycle-minded design aptly called "The Man-Orah" manufactured by a company called Not Schlock and available at Audrey’s Museum Store at the Skirball (shop.skirball.org) and Moderntribe.com. Forged from galvanized steel pipes and other plumbing parts, the Los Angeles-based husband-and-wife team describe the unexpected ritual object as "a proactive response to the overall lack of tasteful, hip, un-schlocky Judaica available to the general public."
"Alyssa and I were looking for a cool menorah that would stand out from typical Judaica, and we had a really hard time finding anything that was to our tastes," Korwin says. "As our sensibility leans in an industrial direction, it occurred to us that as artists we could come up with the perfect design that could be fashioned out of plumbing pipe. After a trip to the hardware store, we came up with a design that ended up being perfect on the first try. It was a very fulfilling experiment for us."
Korwin notes that the reaction to their design has been largely positive, and feedback from other couples who bought the Man-Orah informs them that they struck a chord with a design that doesn’t quite fit the old concept of Judaica yet is an expressive way to observe tradition. "It’s not the kind of thing one would give or receive for a wedding or bar mitzvah present, but that’s the whole point," Korwin says.
Modern Tribe offers its own repurposing/DYI menorah opportunity, thanks to Woodland Hills-based artist Fay Miller. Miller transforms the shards of the broken wedding glass from a couple’s ceremony into an elegant "art glass" menorah that not only commemorates the light spirit of Chanukah, but the wedding anniversary as well.
Israeli designers, meanwhile, are also raising the bar on menorahs by combining design elements from nature with function and beauty. Anat Basanta, whose menorahs and Judaica are available nationwide at contemporaryjudaicadesigns.com and etsy.com, is noted for her Sabra Menorah, inspired by a cactus indigenous to Israel and made of aluminum discs representing sabra "leaves" that can be arranged at will, growing each night of the holiday. She also designed a Pea Menorah in either aluminum or brass, inspired by the pea shell, where candles replace the peas.
Marit Meisler uses the unexpected medium of concrete to create her functional, contemporary menorah (thejewishmuseum.org). Nine movable pieces can be arranged in countless configurations for a centerpiece that’s different every year.
No matter how you choose to observe Chanukah, selecting a menorah is an opportunity to express your unique design aesthetic, the values you cherish in the holiday and the centuries-old traditions of our people. And with so many talented Jewish artists inspired to constantly redefine the menorah, you can be sure there will be plenty of options from which to choose.