Menorahs are customizable. There aren’t many stipulations for their design – you just need nine candles for a Hanukkah menorah, with the shamash, or “helper” candle, set apart from the others. So there’s a lot of room for creativity! Since antiquity, menorah makers have been adjusting or embellishing the basic nine-candle form. Sometimes the design expresses the region where it was made, other times it nods to an important biblical lesson. But some artists have begun to see the modern menorah as an object unto itself; not saddled with centuries of religious tradition but a functional houseware that could simply exude beauty, art, or peace. What makes a menorah so ripe for modification? And what does it say about us that we’re so interested in these glowing objects?
A quick look through our exhibition Lighting the World: Menorahs Around the Globe makes it clear that menorah design has always varied widely. The show features menorahs designed and used everywhere from Persia, to Mexico, to the United States. And the variety of styles is staggering. For instance, the region in which a menorah was made might heavily influence the materials and iconography used. Tin was a common material for menorahs in the early colonies of North America. But the same material in Europe was very rarely used – early menorahs in those countries were very often made of brass. One menorah in our exhibition is from Brazil and adorned with semi-precious stones, like amethyst, that are native to the region. And menorahs made in North Africa use all the Moroccan motifs you’d expect to see on a full-scale building. Of course not every Hanukkiah is decked out in regional flare – a large portion of these pieces are quite simple. But it’s clear from collections like ours, and others around the world, that the menorah has been a source of creative artistry and innovation for many centuries.
That doesn’t mean that they’ve earned a place in our home as everyday objects. There’s something about menorahs, even the highly decorative ones, that makes them ill-suited for year-round display. That’s especially true for younger generations. For better or worse, platforms like Instagram have put a huge emphasis on visual style in recent years. And a calming minimal aesthetic reigns supreme. So artists today are reimagining menorahs as vessels for artistic expression, for the sake of art and beauty alone. Why hide your menorah away for 51 weeks of the year? Why use one that doesn’t speak to you on an aesthetic level? If our menorahs are designed well enough, they could bring us joy everyday. That’s the hope for Jesse Kivel and his fellow co-founders at Judaica Standard Time. The company works with artists around the world to create Judaica that is unshackled from traditional motifs and isolated utility. JST found inspiration in the intersection between Judaica and the resurgence of crafts like ceramics. They want the objects they sell to transcend religion and find a place in the everyday lives of their owners. Ceramicist Julia Elsas has a similar goal. Already an artist in printmaking, installation and performance, she was inspired to create menorahs when she began working with clay. “Like many of the ceramic objects I make,” she says, “the menorahs were created as functional artful objects that I wanted in my life, but I couldn’t find elsewhere.” Elsas originally started by making modern menorahs for herself and her family. Now she sells the menorahs on her website (and they’re in several hip boutiques, too). Elsas’ menorahs are perfectly attuned to the tastes of today’s generation. Minimal, tactical, and a little playful. Perhaps it’s no surprise that one of her favorite menorahs in the Jewish Museum collection is the very Memphis-style menorah by postmodern artist Peter Shire.
But why care so much about what a menorah looks like? Is the proximity to Christmas turning Hanukkah into its own consumerist, commodified holiday? Or is there more to this movement? Kivel thinks it’s likely both. A menorah’s millennial aesthetic might be the original inspiration for someone to purchase one. But once it’s in the home, it can be a catalyst for a deeper relationship with the object and the surrounding traditions. The style might be a “jumping off point.” (Something Kivel says he has experienced himself since founding JST.) Handmade objects also have a tactical sense that is compelling. Judaica Standard Time has even designed the packaging of their menorahs to feel special and meaningful. They hope that the care and intentionality will compel people to interact with their modern menorahs in a deeper way. We’re all certainly more likely to engage with an object that we think looks or feels beautiful. Kivel and Elsas both hope that their menorahs make people proud and excited to light them each night, perhaps renewing energy around the Hanukkah tradition in the process.
Kivel and Elsas both agree that lighting candles during Hanukkah also touches on something more universal, more visceral, than just a religious rite. Everyone is drawn to flickering light; candles are a mainstay of home decor in Jewish and non-Jewish houses alike. Perhaps it is this innate attraction to light and candles that has made the menorah such an object of interest for centuries. And it’s this connection to a deeper, universally human ritual that inspires this new generation of artists. Their work speaks to the menorah’s function as a light-giving, life-giving object. And whether you celebrate Hanukkah or not, that’s compelling.
Despite design differences, there’s no denying the connection between these modern menorahs and the centuries-old lamps in our exhibition. They serve the same purpose, of course – holding candles for the Hanukkah celebration. But in both instances, we see our drive to customize, to adapt, and to imbue the object with additional meaning. It’s yet another aspect of the Hanukkah story that has been practiced since antiquity – and will no doubt continue for generations to come. Kivel and Elsas both hope so. “It’s humbling to imagine that one of my menorahs might be passed down to a child and later a grandchild many years from now,” Elsas says. And with any luck, Judaica Standard Time’s menorahs will be around long enough to become oldfashioned themselves, Kivel says. The circle of life.
We’ll be sharing selections from the Lighting the World exhibition during every night of Hanukkah this year. Tune in to our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram channels! And check out the websites of Judaica Standard Time and Julia Elsas to see more of their gorgeous work.
Chelsea Dowell is the Director of Public Engagement at the Museum at Eldridge Street.