Lamps, candles light Hanukkah display

December 17, 1990|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

Lights of the season come in many forms.

At the Beth Israel Hebrew School in Randallstown, they range from a silver candelabrum first used in 1880 to the twists of red glass made to hold candles in 1970, from an ornate seven-branch menorah of bronze smuggled out of Nazi Germany in 1937 to an old shoe polish tin containing tiny wicks of blanket threads dipped in machine oil.

This last is a replica of an improvised menorah of eight lights -- a chanukiah -- that 17-year-old Simche Unsdorfer hid under his bunk the night of Dec. 11, 1944, to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, in the bleak confines of Buchenwald concentration camp.

Dozens of oil lamps, electric lights and candlesticks on display to mark the eight days of Hanukkah at Beth Israel have stories, and the young exhibitors eager to tell them are almost as varied as their exhibits. Wednesday is the eighth and final day of the festival, which recalls a great Jewish victory over pagan Greeks more than 2,000 years ago.

Rebecca Ricklis, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at Sykesville Middle School, was quietly serious as she explained that the lamps on her table "may be used in all the holidays" -- they are known by the Hebrew word that means "good day." She carefully colored the pen-and-ink illustrations showing their different uses.

Nearby, Yonot Stadd, Stefanie Zemlak and Iris Turkel, 12-year-old seventh-graders at Old Court Middle School, and McDonogh School student Julie Kaplan, also 12, laughed as they explained the symbolism of their candles of braided wax.

According to a Jewish tradition, a young girl holds the sweet-smelling beeswax as high as she can unless she wants to marry a short man. Her husband-to-be will stand as tall as the flickering light.

Another candlestick was attached to a small brass incense burner. Its fragrance had an ennobling purpose. "This is prayer," Stefanie said. "You're supposed to smell the spices."

Above the din of cheerful singing, holiday greetings and excited first-graders touring the exhibit on Thursday rose the strong, confident voice of Matt Feldman, a seventh-grader at Deer Park Middle School. "OK, my favorite, personally, is this one," he shouted, pointing to a nine-branch candelabrum brought from Poland in the last century. Asked why, he replied, "Well, it's one of the old ones. It's really neat."

But it was not the oldest of all. That distinction went to an oil lamp from Russia, made of copper sometime between the late 1700s and very early 1800s. Todd Pinson, 12, another Deer Park student, noted that it was a little worse for wear.

"If you were as old as that one, you'd look beaten up, too," joked Rachmiel V. Tobesman, a teacher at the Hebrew School. Most of the nearly 60 items in the "Let There Be Light" exhibit are part of Mr. Tobesman's collection.

Maya Becker, a Pikesville Middle School seventh-grader who is on Todd's team, said, "A woman is supposed to light the candles."

Mr. Tobesman concurred. "It's a traditional religious obligation for women," he told his students.

The teacher demonstrated that the branches of one old Russian menorah could be shaped to transform it into a candelabrum for secular use. "This was common in Russia," he said. "People didn't have much money, so they tried to make things multipurpose."

Rachel Glaser, the principal at Beth Israel, said about 500 children are part of the congregation's teaching program, including those in the classes that meet Sundays instead of after school during the week, and the five-day nursery school and kindergarten.

Hanukkah projects at Beth Israel included contests for several age groups to produce the most beautiful and most unusual menorahs. Contest entries on display are made of dough, plastic Lego blocks, cardboard, wood, metal bolts and ceramics.

While teams from Mr. Tobesman's Hebrew class carefully arranged and embellished their tables of menorahs and lamps, students also volunteered for other duties in connection with Beth Israel's Hanukkah celebration. "I've been teaching the younger kids the prayers and stuff," said 11-year-old Gail Rubin, a Franklin Middle School seventh-grader.

Old Court Middle School student Jason Greenberg, 12, described himself as a one-man "technical crew."

He amended the description slightly. "I'm the janitor, kind of," he said. "I've been getting things polished and sweeping the floors."

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