Tracing the “Jewish Journey” through Hanukiah Design
A version of this article was originally posted in December 2018 and was written by museum intern Parker Vaughn. We’re revisiting it today to celebrate Hanukkah 2019. The exhibition Lighting the World: Menorahs from around the Globe is on view through December 2019 and can be seen during all Museum hours. The Museum will host a special lighting ceremony for several of the menorahs in the exhibition after December 25th’s Klez for Kids concerts!
Sitting along the elaborately decorated walls of the Museum’s historic sanctuary are dozens of menorahs, whose own ornate decoration is giving the sanctuary a run for its money. The Hanukkah lamps are part of an exhibition entitled Lighting the World: Hanukkah Menorahs from Around the Globe and it explores the diversity of menorahs from all around the world. This exhibition truly offers a window into the past and a glimpse into the global Jewish communities spanning 500 years and five continents. The vast array of 89 unique 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, what their life was like, and how these lamps were used.
What’s so exciting about this collection is how truly diverse the menorahs are, in style, material and origin. Not only do they come from all corners of the globe, but their design and material reflect their origins and the people who would have used them. The menorahs are beautiful objects in their own right, but they also tell a compelling story about the diversity of Jewish life through history and around the world.
The exhibition was managed, like all the exhibitions at the Museum, by our archivist and exhibition curator Nancy Johnson. I recently had a chance to catch up with Nancy and learn more about the show from her. Enjoy our conversation, and come see the show yourself sometime soon!
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 Hanukkah 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 global 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 into 2020.
Parker Vaughn was a senior at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School where he studied media development and production.