Hanukkah, the eight-day Jewish festival that commemorates the reconsecration of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem over 2,000 years ago, began at sundown yesterday, December 10. In New York, the holiday held special significance to waves of Jewish newcomers in the 20th century, many of them from Eastern Europe, who saw an opportunity to celebrate their faith in a way that had not been possible in their home countries. (Though some Jewish people have pointed out that other holidays, primarily Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover, are more important from the perspective of religious observance.)
New York City is home to 1.1 million Jews, making it the largest Jewish community outside of Israel, and the rich culture of Judaism resonates vibrantly in its public collections and archives. The Jewish Museum in Manhattan, for instance, has the biggest collection of Hanukkah menorahs in the world at nearly 1,050 pieces. In honor of the Festival of Lights, it’s worth spotlighting a few gems in New York’s trove of Hanukkah treasures.
Two Hanukkah Poems From a Medieval Illuminated Manuscript at NYPL
A pair of Hanukkah hymns from an exquisite illuminated 14th-century manuscript known as “David Bar Pesah Mahzor,” a prayer book named after its scribe and decorator, reside in the Dorot Jewish Division of the New York Public Library (NYPL). The codex of 1,156 vellum pages, bound in two solid volumes, contains traditional liturgical texts as well as several examples of religious poems known as piyutim, specially composed for festive synagogue services on the Jewish Holidays and special Shabbats. One of the piyutim in the manuscript is “Odekha ki anafta” (“I will praise You for though You were angry with me, Your anger was turned away”) by 11th-century French liturgical poet Joseph Ben Solomon of Carcassonne, to be performed on the first Shabbat of Hanukkah.
As Lyudmila Sholokhova, curator of the Jewish Division at NYPL’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, explains:
The four characters of the Hebrew word [odekha] are featured in distinctive red ink adorned with sophisticated floral elements — tiny leaves and flowers placed inside and outside the letters. Beginnings of each line follow the order of the Hebrew alphabet. Because of the nature of this acrostic, each initial letter of the line is repeated nine times, but their positioning creates a sophisticated calligraphic pattern consistent throughout the entire poem.
The Largest-Ever Collection of Hanukkah Lamps at the Jewish Museum
The Jewish Museum in New York City’s Upper East Side houses the world’s most vast collection of Hanukkah lamps or menorahs, multibranched candelabra lighted every night of the festival. Most menorahs have eight branches, commemorating the miracle of the last jug of olive oil, described in the Talmud, which kept the Temple Menorah alight for eight days (a ninth branch is used as the Shamash, a candle used to help light the others). Over the 114 years of its existence, the museum has amassed a total of 1,050 Hanukkah lamps ranging in date from the Renaissance to the present. Eighty of these menorahs are currently on view in the exhibition Accumulations: Hanukkah Lamps through March 2022.
Some of the most intriguing examples are the work of contemporary artists who have pushed the boundaries of menorah design, such as the Egyptian artist Karim Rashid’s bright pink silicone “Menorahmorph” (2004), or Joel A. Smith’s rhodium-plated brass lamp (1992). Highlights of the show also include a 19th-century Moroccan copper alloy menorah inscribed with Middle Eastern motifs; and a Hanukkah lamp created by Arnold Zadikow and Leopold Hecht using wood stolen from a Nazi camp-ghetto in former Czechoslovakia, described as a “rare example of Jewish ceremonial art made during the Holocaust.”
A Magnificent Silver Menorah at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
This elegant silver menorah, on view at the Met through January 2021, is breathtaking for its size — it stands at nearly three feet tall — as well as its intricate embellishments. Created between 1866 and 1872 in Lemberg (Lviv) in Eastern Europe, the lamp is decorated with flowering blossoms and held up by four miniature lions. It is topped by a majestic eagle finial with outstretched wings. A Hebrew inscription at the base of the lamp reads, in English, “With You is the fountain of life, by Your light do we see light” (Psalms 36:10).
Another noteworthy Hanukkah object on view at the Met: the Baraffael lamp, a hanging wall lamp rather than a standing candelabrum. The rooster embossed in the top register is the crest of the wealthy Baraffael family in Rome, who commissioned the lamp in the 1770s, while the luxurious stylized shell motifs evoke the Rococo style popular at the time.
A Menorah Floor Mosaic From an Ancient Roman Synagogue at the Brooklyn Museum
In 2006, the Brooklyn Museum exhibited a mosaic floor from the first ancient synagogue to be discovered in the Mediterranean basin at Hammam-Lif, Tunisia, dating back to 500 BCE. One mosaic design featured a menorah accompanied by the lulav and ethrog, known as the “four species,” which are waved in the synagogue during the weeklong Jewish harvest holiday of Sukkot. While menorahs are usually associated with Hanukkah, images of the lamp were often used to differentiate a synagogue from a Christian church or a polytheistic house of worship in the Byzantine era, according to the Met’s research. These lamps normally had seven branches instead of nine, modeled after the great golden menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem.
A Photograph of Jewish Writer Fanny Hurst at the New-York Historical Society
A photograph in the collection of the New-York Historical Society (NYHS) depicts the Jewish American novelist and dramatist Fannie Hurst sifting through books in a room; a seven-branched menorah is prominently displayed on the mantelpiece behind her. Hurst was known for her support of social justice causes, including the rights of women, African Americans, Jewish refugees, and other oppressed groups.
Also among the NYHS’s holdings is a Hanukkah lamp designed by by New York City silversmith Bernard Bernstein. Its unique, minimal structure was inspired by early Gothic iron gates with pointed arches.