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This Sandra Magsamen design for Silvestri is available at Temple Israel.
By Rich Saal | SJ-R
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Art meets ceremony
By Steven Spearie

The meandering roots form the base, representing the dispersement of the Jewish people throughout the ages. Pomegranates and dates, fruits of sustenance in the desert, fold out, making the candleholders.

Perched on upward-turning branches are exotic birds of paradise, bringing to mind a return to the homeland. Emanating from the branches are thorns, symbolizing the pain and persecution of a people.

"Tree of Life" is the work of Erte, a Russian-born artist and designer, who navigated through the worlds of 20th century fashion, jewelry and costume and set design. Though not Jewish, he designed the candelabrum as a tribute to the 40th anniversary of Israel's statehood in 1988.

Lisa Stone of Springfield said "Tree of Life's" vibrancy and striking symbolism caught her eye in, of all places, Hawaii. She was vacationing there with her husband, Dr. Stephen Stone, and their children when a rainstorm ushered them into a gallery.

The Stones emerged with three Erte pieces, including "Tree of Life."

"I had never seen anything like that," Stone says. "It married the artistic and the ceremonial."

"Tree of Life" and a number of other menorahs will be on display when the Stone family gathers for Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights that began Dec. 1, commemorating the Maccabees' triumph over their Syrian-Greek oppressors. After recapturing the desecrated Jerusalem temple, the Maccabees discovered they had enough olive oil to keep the menorah lit for only one night. Miraculously, it burned for eight days, enough time to procure more oil.

The menorah (technically, the term is hanukkiah because it has eight branches and one servant candle, differentiating it from the seven-branch menorah of the ancient Jerusalem temple) is one of the centerpieces of the Hanukkah celebration. 

Within the last several decades has come an explosion of designs, from the high-end to the whimsical, satisfying a number of tastes.

The more traditional menorahs were worked in silver, pewter and brass, with holders - originally for oil; candles are a relatively recent addition - in a straight line with the shamash, or servant candle, raised higher and off to one side, according to Temple Israel's Rabbi Barry Marks.

Jewish artistic talent, says Rabbi Michael Datz of Temple B'rith Sholom, went into ritual precious metals or music. "Hiddur mitzvah," making art more beautiful, has always been part of Judaism, he says.

"The explosion of artistic expression, that's not at all at odds with the Judaic message," Datz says. "If you commit to do something, you do it in the most beautiful means allowed."

"It fascinates me," says Lisa Stone, "the myriad ways people interpret Judaica."

More contemporary menorahs have included any number of media: fused glass, crystal, baling wire and mixed metal. But style, Datz says, doesn't always equate with quality.

"I bought one menorah that I thought was so cool, so modern and so stylish," he recalls. "But it was made of Lucite. As the candles burned down, it completely deformed the menorah. 

"It was literally a burning bush."

Roberta Cherrick, a volunteer at the Sisterhood Judaica Shop at Temple B'rith Sholom, says it's becoming a trend for families to have multiple menorahs. There is a large market for children's menorahs, from pink dinosaurs (the ridges serve as candle holders) to Noah's Ark to sports themes. For the environmentally conscious, there's an LED electronic menorah made from recycled circuit boards.

"The selection is huge," Cherrick says. "(The contemporary menorahs) are a way for families to embrace the festival and make it more celebratory.

"There will always be people who want the more traditional (designs), but others want to match their own personal styles."

For Springfield's Jay Kitterman, an appreciation of the Walt Disney philosophy of business - and an ardor for its most identifiable characters, like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck - led him to purchase a Disney menorah.

"It's a fun, happy way to celebrate Hanukkah," says Kitterman, director of Lincoln Land Community College's hospitality management program.

"It's a time for families to think of its roots, to think about the miracle (of the oil) and the travails their own ancestors went through to practice their own religion."

Rabbi Datz says while Hanukkah ranks as a minor celebration on the Jewish calendar, important messages still resonate with Jews today: religious freedom, rededication and the message against assimiliation.Datz points out that the Talmud, the collection of Jewish law and tradition, tends to downplay the military victory of the Maccabees in favor of other things.

"The emphasis on light and miracles is meant to reprioritize things," he says, "an expression of the prophetic message 'not by might and not by power, but by spirit alone shall all men live in peace.' "

Because of its proximity on the calendar, Hanukkah gets lumped in as "the Jewish Christmas," an undeserving designation, Datz notes.

"I don't know of anyone who drives around looking for menorah lights," he jokes.

Cherrick says her family lights five menorahs, usually set on a table by a large picture window.

"The eighth day is quite a blaze," she says. "A neighbor remarked she loves to see the twinkling lights."

Where to buy
Both Temple Israel (1140 W. Governor St., 546-2841) and Temple B'rith Sholom (1004 S. Fourth St., 525-1360) have gift shops run by their sisterhoods that have a wide range of menorahs. In St. Louis, there's Source Unlimited (11044 Olive Blvd., 314-567-1925) and in Chicago, there's The Spertus Shop (620 S. Michigan Ave., 312-322-1740). Online, there's www.alljudaica.com.

A special collection
Two brass menorahs that are part of Temple Israel's collection are unspectacular  except for their provenance. They were rescued, says Rabbi Barry Marks, from the Holocaust and given to the temple as gifts by former members. One of the menorahs is decorated with lions and deer, popular motifs among European designs. "A lot of people don't know where they came from," says Marks, "but it resonates with me."

 

Story published Friday, December 3, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 7 )

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