Menorah collections bring light to homes

Owners cherish lamps as family mementos and works of art

  • Liz and Steve Baker and their son, Matthew, 7, are pictured with their menorah collection. Steve, who is an artist, made the menorahs with copper tubing, including the one in the foreground at left with blue circular stained glass.
Liz and Steve Baker and their son, Matthew, 7, are pictured with… (Perna, Algerina, Baltimore…)
November 28, 2012|By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun

Next Saturday, the Baker family home will be full of light.

On the first night of Hanukkah, the Bakers — Liz, Steve, and 7-year-old Matthew — will celebrate by lighting several menorahs in their home and in the Hampden studio where Steve Baker creates artwork, including menorahs, out of glass.

"My son will light one," says Liz Baker. "I'll light one, and we'll walk down to my husband's studio, where Steve keeps menorahs in the window, and we'll light them as well."

Like many members of the Baltimore Jewish community, the Bakers have amassed a small collection of menorahs that's growing over time. "I think I'm up to eight or nine now," says Liz Baker. "It's not a huge collection, but it's getting there."

The first menorah, a six-branched lamp, was attributed to the artisan Bezalel, whose story is told in the Book of Exodus. Today, nine-branched menorahs, known as Hanukkiahs or Hanukkah Menorahs, are lit during the eight nights of Hanukkah, to celebrate the triumph of the Maccabees over the Greeks.

Traditionally, menorahs were lit using oil. In recent years, however, the source of light expanded to include candles and bulbs. Stylistically, modern menorahs are even more varied.

The Bakers' collection runs the gamut from traditional to modern, including some made by Steve Baker, who is not Jewish, as gifts for his wife. Like most local enthusiasts, the Bakers consider their menorahs works of decorative art, worthy of display, as well as important symbols of faith and community.

"Living in 'Christmasland' in Hampden, I've found myself needing some Jewish identity around me," says Liz Baker. "I have these vivid memories of being a child in my grandparents' house – of the dining room table lined up with a dozen or so menorahs and all the grandkids lighting them."

She recreates that scene, scattering her own menorahs throughout her house.

For Anneslie's Rebecca Klein, the connection is personal.

"I bought my first menorah a few years after college," she says. "My grandfather sent me money around Hanukkah and I wasn't sure what to do with it, so I bought a menorah, thinking it would be a good way to always remember him."

Klein's grandfather died two years ago. "I'm so happy now I used the money for that purpose," she says.

Since her first purchase, Klein has added to her collection, including menorahs selected specifically for her children, Seth and Samara.

"It's festive for the kids," Klein says. "They enjoy taking part and saying a blessing. It helps them feel connected to the holiday. Each of our menorahs has its own story, and we talk about that. They love hearing the story of how I looked for the perfect menorah for each of them."

For some collectors, the thrill of the hunt drives the collection.

Betsey Hurwitz-Schwab of Cumberland, started collecting about 12 years ago. Since then, her collection has grown to more than 100 menorahs, some of which were on display last month at the Frostburg Museum.

Hurwitz-Schwab is drawn to the variety of menorahs available.

"I just got interested in looking at them," she says. "I have some that are very contemporary and some that are very traditional. I've gotten many on eBay and at the Baltimore Craft Show. I'm always on the lookout."

Hurwitz-Schwab combines her collecting with another hobby: travel. "I try to get one wherever we travel, though it's not always possible. I got one in Paris and one in Morocco. I got one in New Orleans that is supposedly from Hungary, made in the '40s."

Baker and Klein's budding collection started organically: both realized they had acquired a small collection without making a conscious decision to collect. "I don't have any specific collecting plans," says Liz Baker. "I love that people just give me them. Each one I get has a bit of the person in them."

Hurwitz-Schwab, however, set out to build a collection of menorahs after her interest was sparked by a particular artist.

"I consciously decided to collect," she says. "I have three menorahs from Yaacov Agam – an Israeli artist who does some very modern, abstract work. He's done a number of menorahs. The first one I got is a Hanukkah menorah and each candleholder is a dreidel with an O-ring, so you can spin it on the menorah. Buying that set off my desire to collect."

According to Michele Rubin, the owner of Zyzyx, a store in The Shops at Quarry Lake, Hurwitz-Schwab's story is a common one.

"People come in looking for a certain designer or artist," she says. "If an artist comes out with a different menorah each year, they'll want one."

At Zyzyx, Rubin sells menorahs by a variety of artists, including the Reisterstown ceramic artist Olga Goldin. "She does beautiful handmade menorahs," says Rubin. "Her work is Judaica-themed."

Other popular themes include Stars of David, dreidels, the tree of life and scenes of Jerusalem.

"You can never have too many menorahs," says Rubin. "Some people just buy them because they're beautiful. They don't even use them. They're art."

Hurwitz-Schwab agrees. "We have family menorahs that we light," she explains. "But I don't light the collection menorahs. When my two boys were young, we would each light one. The boys each had one and my husband and I had our family ones."

In Hampden next week, the Baker family will carry out that same tradition, lighting a few menorahs, while surrounded by more.

"There's a feeling of awe, belonging, being part of a Jewish community," says Baker. "Being surrounded by menorahs is a beautiful thing."

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