Lighting the Way of the Diaspora – A Conversation with Eldridge’s Exhibition Curator
This post was written by museum intern Parker Vaughn.
On Thursday, December 6th, the museum is opening a brand new exhibit entitled Lighting the World – one that explores the diversity of menorahs from all around the world. This exhibit truly offers a window into the past and allows museum visitors a glimpse into the global Jewish communities of the past 500 years in 5 different continents. The vast array of 89 separate menorahs provided by the private collection of Aharon Ben Zalman are simply breathtaking. While looking at these menorahs, one can’t help but wonder who might have owned them in the past and what their life might have been like. Each individual menorah truly sustains a life of its own as it begs the visitor to uncover its rich and historical past.
I had the pleasure of catching up with Eldridge Street’s archivist and the exhibition curator, Nancy Johnson, to learn more about this exhibition.
Q: Tell us about Aharon Ben Zalman. How has he accumulated such a vast collection of menorahs?
A: He is a cardiologist who lives New Jersey, and was introduced to us by Shula Bahat from Beit Hatfusot and the American Friends of Beit Hatfutsot, who are our partners in presenting this exhibition. He has been collecting menorahs for more than three decades and has sought out examples from communities all over the world. He loves what they say about history, culture and what he calls the ”Jewish Journey.” He likes to imagine and research the stories the menorahs might tell “if only they could talk.”
Q: How do the menorahs in this exhibit shed light upon their place of origin? What cultural influences are visibly discernible in these menorahs?
A: That’s a question that needs a whole book to answer, but here’s one thing: some of the menorahs, particularly the Italian ones, have images of people on them, which isn’t a usual thing for Judaica. But among those that do, several have the faces rubbed out, perhaps from use, or maybe because someone whoever owned it did not want to use a menorah that had graven images on it.
Q: Is this collection made up of hanukiahs or menorahs? What’s the difference between the two?
A: Good question. A hanukiah is a menorah – a lamp – made specifically for use during Hanukkah. In most Jewish communities, the word menorah refers to the 7-branch light made for the Temple in Jerusalem that has become a symbol of Judaism. But in the United States, most people refer to Hanukkah lamps simply as menorahs, rather than by the more correct Hebrew name. This exhibition features 89 hanukiahs, but we call them Hannukkah menorahs so the public will know what to expect.
Q: Do you have a favorite menorah? Which one? What about it speaks to you?
A: I have many favorites but I particularly like the ones that have a folk art look and were handmade. This one (shown in the photo below) is from Eastern Europe and its decoration isn’t done by an expert artist, but has so much character and charm. There are double-headed eagles (which might be a symbol for the Russian empire), other birds that look like storks (it’s a sign of good fortune if a stork nests near your house in that part of the world), and then there’s some kind of fantasy animal with its tongue sticking out.
Q: Walk us through your curation process. How did you organize these menorahs?
A: Dr. Ben Zalman’s interest is in the Jewish Diaspora and he has made an effort to find examples for his collection from as many places as possible. In light of this wide variety, it seemed to make the most sense to organize them geographically. It’s interesting to see different examples from the same place and to note their similarities, as well as how their designs change over time.
Q: Do you recognize any structural or artistic themes that remain constant throughout all regions? Does this reveal anything about a glob al Jewish identity?
A: What all the lamps have in common, of course, are eight lights, one for each night about Hanukkah. But the form of the lamps changes from place to place. A menorah made in Italy during the Renaissance might look like a piece art from that period, and a terracotta lamp from 18thcentury northern Africa looks like the earthenware produced by Berbers there. They all encapsulate stories of the time and place they were made.
Q: How long will this exhibit be available for viewing?
A: The exhibition’s themes are cultural and historical and not just about the holiday of Hanukkah, so it will be on view through the Spring of 2019.
Come experience the magic of menorahs as the past comes alive in this fantastic exhibit. We hope to see you soon!
Parker Vaughn is a senior at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School where he is studying media development and production.