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Many meaningful menorahs

Hanukkah's candleholders, whether elaborate heirlooms, sleek sculptures, or whimsical playthings, all symbolize survival.

Clockwise from top left: A Disney menorah, a hand-painted tree, and ducks in a bathtub menorahs, all show how ritual objects changed to reflect Jewish life, hobbies and habits in America. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer)
Clockwise from top left: A Disney menorah, a hand-painted tree, and ducks in a bathtub menorahs, all show how ritual objects changed to reflect Jewish life, hobbies and habits in America. (Bonnie Weller / Staff Photographer)Read more

Your home, no matter how small or shared its space, is your refuge, your shelter from storms, emotional or physical, that may be raging elsewhere. And the most comforting home is one that reflects your values.

This month, whether you set up an evergreen topped with a shining star or a menorah with tapered candles, you are doing far more than decorating.

Tonight marks the start of Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish Festival of Lights. At sundown, when at least three stars can be counted in the night sky, the first Hanukkah candle is lit along with a shamash, or helper candle used to light and stand guard over the rest.

Why candles?

Here is the answer in brief: In every Jewish temple or synagogue in the world, there is a light, an eternal flame, that burns above the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept.

But before there were temples all over, there was one Temple, in Jerusalem. The story of how the eternal flame there was snuffed out and then rekindled is the story of Hanukkah.

In 165 B.C. Syrian Greeks ransacked the Temple and extinguished the flame. A band of Jewish rebels known as Maccabees fought back and secured the Temple, but found only enough olive oil there to keep the eternal flame lit for one day.

Yet the flame burned for eight days, long enough to prepare more oil.

That explains why Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days. It explains why a game of chance is played with a spinning top, a dreidel, marked with Hebrew letters that spell out "A Great Miracle Happened There." And it is why the menorah is such a powerful symbol of Jewish survival.

Several ancient Hanukkah menorahs will be showcased in the core exhibit of the National Museum of American Jewish History when it expands to a new home early next year.

"The menorah is a symbol of the miracle that occurred," says museum historian Josh Perelman. "But it is also a symbol of the survival of Jewish heritage."

For now, these menorahs are in storage. Still, the collection provides evidence of how, over time, people fashioned their ritual objects to fit their time and place.

As Jews emigrated to America, assimilated to a certain degree, and began to focus more on their children, their menorahs went from oil-burning designs to those for use with candles and later electricity. Elaborate silver designs yielded to sleek modern styles crafted of porcelain, glass, and acrylic. Instead of heavy brass, artists began to fashion menorahs of playful plastic resin with children's tastes in mind.

"Other than having places for eight-plus candles, there is no set style to a menorah," Perelman says. "They all reflect their place and time because Judaism is continuously evolving and adaptive."

And that has allowed flexibility for folk artists or famous artists.

The oldest in the museum collection is a silver oil-burning menorah compactly designed to fold and fit in the vest pocket of a traveling tradesman. Its age is unknown.

Donated to the museum in 1981 by the family of Frederick Greenwald of Norristown, the menorah was traced by its owners to an ancestor, Raphael Mendes de Sola, a Sephardic Jew from the Caribbean island of Curacao.

"It shows the portability of tradition," Perelman says. "Jews are a diaspora people and they've long been known for being involved in commercial enterprise. So this menorah reveals how ritual objects were created to be beautiful and yet portable."

Another treasure in the museum collection is known as the Lodz menorah, believed to have been made in 1830.

The oil-burning Lodz menorah was given to the museum by a Philadelphian, Rebecca E. Jarvis. A writer and chronicler of Jewish folklore, Jarvis told museum curators her father was in the thread business, and recalled that as a child it was her job to polish the silver menorah her maternal grandfather brought with him from Lodz in 1881.

Unlike the Curacao menorah that was made to travel, the Lodz menorah made a one-way journey, illuminating the story of the migration to America.

"People did not have limitless luggage space," Perelman says. "They had to identify the objects that were essential to them, the things that would tie them to their culture and their traditions."

Over time, American-made menorahs were fashioned to reflect pop culture. The collection features one made of mah jongg tiles; a Disney menorah with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Pluto, and Goofy playing in a band; and a bathtub menorah in which eight yellow ducklings splash about while their mother, acting as the shamash, leads the way.

The museum gift shop sells menorahs that emphasize all manner of hobbies and habits: golf, bargain shopping, even literary character Harry Potter. Dreidels are there, too; the tops always went hand-in-hand with menorahs.

"The dreidel is the first form of Jewish gambling," Elaine Silverman says with a smile. She has run the museum gift shop since 1976 and always encouraged artists to explore contemporary designs in ritual objects.

The shop offers a gold-plated dreidel that resembles an elephant when in motion, and a whimsical menorah with a scene from Romeo and Juliet.

For Perelman, this mix is a sign "of the constant negotiation between heritage and homeland. And to me that's what makes them fascinating and fun."

"The prescription is to remember and celebrate," Perelman says. "The format is different for every family."

And that's no small feat of home decorating.