This weekend touches off Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights for the Jewish faith and a great opportunity to spin some dreidel and exchange socks with your loved ones. The central activity of the eight-night holiday is the lighting of candles, which symbolizes the restoration of the Temple of Jerusalem in 164 BCE, reclaimed from Seleucid takeover in 175 BCE. After Judah the Maccabee led a rebel force to win back the Temple, only enough lamp oil remained to last for a single night. But legend has it that the lamps burned for eight nights, and because of this, celebrants light an escalating series of eight candles held by a menorah.
As a fixture of even largely non-practicing Jewish households, menorahs come in all styles, from traditional to modern, simple to maximalist. Their aesthetics and symbolism are a vast subject, but in honor of Hanukkah year 5783 (by the Hebrew calendar), let’s take a look at some great menorahs that break the mold!
New York’s very own Jewish Museum has a vast collection of Hanukkah lamps — the largest in the world, with more than 1,000 pieces — like a whimsical deconstructed menorah by Peter Shire. Senior Curator Claudia Nahson explained how artists like Shire, working in the 1980s, began to upend the centuries-old menorah design, which traditionally features eight lights in a straight row with a ninth candle (the shamash, or helper).
“Peter Shire typically takes familiar objects and reimagines their shapes, colors, and materials so that we barely recognize them,” Nahson told Hyperallergic. “In his inventive Hanukkah lamp, a mixture of pastel and hot colors, industrial metals, and a cantilevered, swirling arrangement of parts challenge the modernist aesthetic of simplicity that had dominated design for a century.”
The Jewish Museum gift shop is also an amazing resource for unexpected and modern takes on this classic fixture of Hanukkah. While most menorahs rigidly indicate where to place the nightly candles, the “Emerald Ripple Menorah” by the local industrial design studio Friends Of takes a more organic approach, enabling the user to arrange the candles in circles that radiate out from the center point, occupied by the shamash that is used to light the other candles.
Another highlight from the Jewish Museum shop is a kid-friendly Space Shuttle menorah, the perfect way to take your faith all the way to the stars. In my opinion, it also points to a missed opportunity for someone to create the “Menorah Borealis” — which would serve as both a cosmic celebration of the Festival of Lights and of puns, even more common at the Jewish dinner table than a basket of challah.
But speaking of challah, why not celebrate Hanukkah with a candle-lit shoutout to everyone’s favorite egg bread? This incredible menorah was created by visual artist and curator Janie Korn, and is sure to make any carb-lover light up.
Since holidays of all kinds are an opportunity to gather with your community and engage in the roots that connect us to something bigger, menorahs of mushroom clusters by ceramic artist Ben Noam perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the season. Noam’s series, which he began for his own family to celebrate the holiday, reimagines the age-old rites of Hanukkah in a fun and colorful piece that can displayed year-round.
“[I] drew on the California Clay Movement to create a psychedelic fantasy rooted in Jewish stories,” Noam told Hyperallergic. The mushrooms form architectural villages — like a shtetl — inspired by the bright colors of Chagall, Jewish modernism, and the forest mushrooms that emerge with the changing of the seasons.”
Hey, mycelium is yourcelium! Shalom!
Holidays are also a great time to reflect on where you’ve been and where you’re going. In 2021, the Jewish Museum Berlin expanded their collection to include their first-ever modern menorah, a stunning 1924 work by the German-born sculptor Ludwig Yehuda Wolpert that evokes Art Deco sensitivities. Hetty Berg, the museum’s director, explained that the acquisition was in line with the institution’s focus on Jewish ceremonial objects by German artists from the late 19th and early 20th century.
“We want to document the stylistic change that took place during this era,” Berg said. “Only a very small number of Jewish ceremonial objects made by artists in Germany during the 1920s still exist today. Wolpert’s Hanukkah menorah is a prime example of this decisive period and Modernism’s creative awakening, and it fills a gap in the museum’s collection.”
And this is hardly the only 20th century artist moved by the imagery of menorahs. Though the Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was not Jewish, he produced several sculptures inspired by the branches of the olive tree that grows in Jerusalem. (The olive tree is also an important symbol of Palestinian resistance.) Dalí’s 1981 “Peace Menorah” has organic lines and subtle details, including a face and a star of David etched into its stem.
When it comes to fine art menorahs, there are clearly many directions one can turn, but obviously the most avant-garde is not part of any museum collection, but available online at BananaMenorah.com. Tape it to the wall at your Hanukkah gathering in Miami, and everyone will instantly know that your ancient tradition lives on the bleeding edge of contemporary art!
Very much in the spirit of Hanukkah, Banana Menorah is an institution born out of scrappy necessity. According to their website, Samantha Weisman was visiting her goyish boyfriend, Zach Lupei, over college winter break and needed to improvise a menorah to celebrate Hanukkah.
“That first menorah was created from an underripe banana, a chopstick, and some creative thinking,” according to Weisman and Lupei. They’ve celebrated with banana menorahs ever since, and finally decided to quit wasting bananas and make things official in stainless steel. Now it’s the perfect way to ensure your holiday is fruitful.
And however you celebrate, Hanukkah Sameach!