Behind the Scenes of A Hanukkah Project

Hanukkah has arrived and with it another opportunity for The Jewish Museum to show off its tremendous collection of Hanukkah lamps. This year, curator Susan Braunstein teamed up with architect Daniel Libeskind to mount the exhibition A Hanukkah Project: Daniel Libeskind’s Line of Fire. As a curatorial assistant working in Judaica, I was able to get an insider’s view of the preparation and execution of the project and I’ve got to say, this show is something special.

Libeskind’s Line of Fire is a 3.5’ tall site-specific sculptural installation that zig-zags through the museum’s Offit Gallery. Painted bright red and commanding a room adorned with brilliant blue panels that present poems and texts chosen by the architect, the Line of Fire reinterprets a design Libeskind employs to explore Jewish continuity through change and hardship. Using the Line of Fire as a platform, Braunstein chose 40 Hanukkah lamps for display – a hard task considering the museum has over 1000 examples to choose from. To select these lamps, Braunstein considered aesthetic appeal, historical narrative and geographical diversity. Notable among the works on display are a 2.75’ tall lamp lit in the White House in 2001, a lamp designed by architect Richard Meier, and a lamp made from the helmet of a German soldier who fought for the British in the American Revolutionary War!

It was fascinating to watch the show come together; many of the lamps had removable parts that needed to be secured with fishing line and screws. Hardware was created to fasten each object to Libeskind’s platform. These nails and supports are so small and specific that without this tip, you’d likely overlook them (which is precisely the point!).

Over the course of installation I definitely developed favorites. One of my partialities lies with a 19th century lamp with horseshoe arches from the Central Anti-Atlas Mountains in Morocco. Compared to most other lamps in this exhibition it is quite small. I relate to it as a lamp I might have in my own home, one that is transportable and easily stored. It is copper alloy, cast and enameled, and has thick raised lines of vinework ornamenting its surface. Running below its four horseshoe arches, just above its oil wells, is an inscription from proverbs 6:23, “For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light, and reproofs of instruction are the way of life.”

For me, the most striking object in the exhibition is a silver wire filigree lamp with semi-precious stones. I can hardly look away from it- my eyes dart back and forth between its intricate fretwork and its bold colored stones. The lamp can be dated to the first half of the 19th century because of the heart and oval shaped forms covering its surface. Filigree work on lamps made in the latter half of the 19th century consist of broad S-shaped patterns. An attribution to Poland or Russia can be deduced from its stylistic similarities to other lamps of the region as well as its stamped hallmark. Hallmarks are stamps hammered into lamps that identify the quality of the metal or the location of fabrication. This lamp is stamped with a “12,” a hallmark indicating it was created in Poland (either the independent part or the part under Russian rule).

A few more insights before you check out the show for yourself: when exploring the lamps, take a look at the title on each label. The curator came up with these titles to highlight specific attributes of each lamp. I’d recommend investigating Lamp with Hands and Lamp with Leaping Lions. This should be easy considering Braunstein made every effort to present these lamps without protective covers – just don’t touch them!

In addition to providing the ability to view these Hanukkah lamps up close and personal, A Hanukkah Project: Daniel Libeskind’s Line of Fire offers many elements for metaphorical interpretation. Whether you are moved by the saturation of red and blue throughout the gallery, enthralled by the shape of the Line of Fire, or resonate with the texts commenting on the regenerative power of fire, this exhibition offers a lot of light as we approach the dark days of winter.

Rebecca Pristoop, Curatorial Assistant

Image Credits : Installation shot, A Hanukkah Project: Daniel Libeskind’s Line of Fire, Christine McMonagle for The Jewish Museum. / Hanukkah Lamp, BD, Lemberg (Lviv, Ukraine), 1867-72; Silver: cast, engraved, and traced; 34 1/4 x 23 7/8 x 15 in. (87 x 60.7 x 38.1 cm).The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Dr. Harry G. Friedman in memory of Adele Friedman, F 5119.  / Hanukkah Lamp, Poland or Russia, first half 19th century. Silver: filigree, appliqué, and cast; semiprecious stones; glass; 10 13/16 x 16 3/4 x 4 3/4 in. (27.4 x 42.5 x 12.1 cm); The Jewish Museum, New York. Gift of Mrs. H. Pereira Mendes, S 1020.