New York’s Jewish Museum is shining a bright light on the many forms and enduring ritual uses of Chanukah lamps from around the world in a new exhibit that runs through the winter holiday season.
The museum’s vast collection of 1,022 Chanukah lamps date from the Renaissance period to modern day. They are made from a wide variety of materials and come from virtually every part of the world, including North and South America, Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Each lamp holds a unique history.
“They are wonderful objects and the largest part of the museum’s collection. Over time, the lamp became more significant for a variety of reasons,” said Susan Braunstein, Ph.D., the museum’s Henry J. Leir curator and an expert on Chanukah lamps. She’s authored several books on menorahs, published a catalogue of the museum’s collection of Chanukah lamps and is an adjunct instructor of Jewish art at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Braunstein provides museum visitors with an engaging overview of the Chanukah lamp, sharing its origins in Jewish tradition, innovative forms, enduring ritual uses and its social context.
The Jewish Museum’s current exhibit “Masterpieces & Curiosities: Memphis Does Hanukkah,” on display through Feb. 12, features Judaica by modern artists including Los Angeles-based designer Peter Shire’s Menorah #7. The Masterpieces & Curiosities series is organized by Jens Hoffmann, director of special exhibitions and public programs — and also senior curator-at-large for the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). The Jewish Museum’s permanent collection, “Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,” has Chanukah lamps on view year-round.
Shire was a member of the Memphis Design Group, founded by Italian architect and designer Ettore Sottsass in Milan. During the group’s first meeting in 1981, Bob Dylan’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” was on continuous play and became the inspiration for the group’s name. Known for its riot of color and geometry, the Memphis Group took inspiration from Pop Art, Art Deco, cartoons, toys and 1950s kitsch — while at its heart was a disregard for the status quo.
Shire’s menorah, which he said is inspired by his family’s Jewish roots, is a set of oddly shaped and balanced geometries, fabricated with industrial materials, bright colors and “finish-fetish” detailing. Shire’s style is influenced by Russian Constructivism and the Bauhaus, as well as the radical, irreverent and often humorous history and style of West Coast art.
Each Chanukah lamp in the show, whether contemporary or hundreds of years old, reflects a history of decisions and events that happened over centuries, Braunstein said.
“Different forms developed over time and are taken from different sources,” she said. “A baroque lamp was the modern art of its time. That’s something to think about and remember as we look at things that come out now, like Shire’s work.”
While the shiny gold and silver menorahs on view are eye-catching, Braunstein said it’s important to remember that Jews in many parts of the world, living in poor and difficult conditions, have used plain, everyday materials to keep with Judaism’s teaching at Chanukah to remember the victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem on Temple Mount in the second century B.C.E.
“Some rabbis ranked the materials that could be used and, at the bottom of the list, are walnut and egg shells,” she said. “A visitor from Romania told me he remembers his mother took potatoes and cut them up and carved a little hole in them and put a candle or oil in them for Chanukah.”
But the menorah is only part of what makes Chanukah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, so enduring.
“Chanukah is a joyous holiday,” Braunstein said. “It’s a holiday of light, which is always wonderful, and it comes at the time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere when it gets dark early. Religiously, it’s mandated and it has to do with the wish for the restoration of the Temple, an important thing in Jewish
“Masterpieces & Curiosities: Memphis Does Hanukkah” is on display at New York’s Jewish Museum through Feb. 12. The museum’s permanent collection, “Culture and Continuity: The Jewish Journey,” has Chanukah lamps on viewyear-round. (212) 423-3200; thejewishmuseum.org.
By Robert Gluck, JNS.org