Demand for the whimsical and creative has led to a myriad of menorah choices


November 07, 1996|By Holly Selby

Tradition holds that a menorah, a candelabrum used to celebrate the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, has nine candles. There must be one candle for each of the holiday's eight nights, and one candle that is set apart and is used to light the others.

But that leaves a lot of room for interpretation: There are menorahs made of pottery, glass, stone, bronze, china and wood. Some are dignified, while others glitter. Some are simple; some elaborate. Sometimes they're one-of-a-kind works of art.

Their diversity points to a growing demand for whimsy and creativity in menorahs. Indeed, in addition to being sold at temple stores and Hebrew bookstores, menorahs these days are easily found at a growing number of gift shops and department stores such as Nordstrom.

"People have always wanted menorahs, but there seems to be an increase in interest in all religions, and that is being reflected," says Ginny Tomlinson, owner of Tomlinson's gift shops. "Some people give them as gifts, others use them as candleholders and some collect them."

The holiday commemorates a military victory that took place around 165 B.C. when the Jews of Judea defeated the foreign rulers of the kingdom. The Jews reclaimed Jerusalem, but found their temple desecrated. To purify it, ritual oil was needed, but the Jews had enough oil for only one day. The miracle of Hanukkah occurred when the oil lasted eight days, long enough for the temple to be rededicated.

And in recent decades, the popularity of Hanukkah, traditionally a minor holiday in Judaism, has grown. Once celebrated with family visits and holiday meals, the holiday is marked by an increasing number of Jews with festivities and gifts, says Barry Kessler, curator and assistant director for the Jewish Historical Society of Maryland.

A growth in importance

"Beginning in the 1950s, the holiday began to grow in importance and popularity among American Jews," Kessler says. "It's very easy to see why: Because it absorbed some of the characteristics of Christmas, because it became much more commercial and much more focused on children and gifts."

Growing interest in the holiday also reflects a greater acceptance of diversity in American society, says William Stuart, director of undergraduate studies in anthropology at the University of Maryland College Park. And these holiday festivities are an expression of Jewish identity.

"Some of my colleagues point to 1967 as being the watershed year because of the success of the Six-Day War [when Israel defeated Egypt, Syria and Jordan]," he says. "Many Jews around the world became newly proud of their background -- no longer was there any need at all to be shy, to not be proud of one's heritage."

Nearly six years ago, when Hilly and Hazel Greenstein opened Zyzyx, a gift shop in Pikesville, they offered several styles of menorahs to customers. Each year since then, they've added to their inventory. Four years ago, they began turning their shop into a menorah wonderland for the holiday season.

From now until Hanukkah, which this year begins Dec. 6, Zyzyx will feature the work of 68 artists who specialize in Judaica, or objects pertaining to Judaism. Their creations -- whimsical, elegant, charming, silly, traditional, kitschy, contemporary, beautiful menorahs -- range in price from $45 to $2,400.

There is a bronze menorah made of five dancing men, all holding candles aloft. There's a ceramic menorah that depicts Klezmer (Jewish folk music) musicians. Several, made by California artist Karen Rossi, have glittery metal people who seem to be flying as they dangle from each candleholder. Another artist has created a menorah that resembles Noah's ark.

"I can't quite say there has been a revival of religious interest, but it does seem that people are returning to tradition," says Hazel Greenstein. "And every year, interest in menorahs seems to grow."

Those in search of the perfect Hanukkah gift may choose menorahs that depict village scenes with zaftig women and bearded men. Or menorahs built around a "Fiddler on the Roof" theme, a wedding, a village festival.

Some menorahs are made to appeal to boys and have baseball themes; others decorated in pinks and pale blues or covered in tiny animals seem intended to please little girls.

Wedding memories in a menorah

There's even a menorah that incorporates the bits of glass from the cup broken by the groom in a traditional Jewish wedding.

Designed by artist Richard Silver, this menorah is a sculpture made of two glass triangles. A compartment sits at the juncture formed when the two triangles meet. The menorah -- complete with wedding glass, which comes in varying colors and arrives in a traditional white satin bag -- can be purchased at Zyzyx for $520.

After a wedding, the customer wanting such a menorah brings the shards of glass back to the store. The glass is incorporated into the menorah, which is engraved with the name of the couple and the date of their wedding.

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