Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, begins at sundown on December 24. Families all over the world will celebrate by singing traditional songs and enjoying sizzling latkes beside glowing candlelight. Every winter, Hanukkah commemorates the bravery of the Ancient Israelites who defeated their oppressors during the Maccabean Revolt. Candles are lit on the eight nights of Hanukkah to symbolically represent the triumph of light over darkness.
The Jewish Museum is home to the largest collection of Hanukkah lamps in the world, featuring more than 1,000 lamps that reflect the multitude of places where Jews have settled and flourished. Each lamp, unique in its own right, tells a story and carries with it an artistic legacy of maker and style—like the three-foot tall, mid-18th century copper alloy lamp from western Ukraine, selected by our curators for display in our lobby over the course of the holiday (pictured right). The decorative floral brackets around the base are similar to the reflectors on Ukrainian chandeliers and symbolize the Tree of Life.
Throughout history, artists have continuously reimagined the shape and utility of the Hanukkah lamp, elevating the functional sacred object to an archetype for artistic innovation. To introduce our diverse collection, here are eight Hanukkah lamps currently on view:
Hanukkah Lamp from Stolin, Russia (pictured above)
Composed of eight small chairs, this lamp from Russia was cast in lead in 1885. This whimsical interpretation of the Hanukkah lamp is a style that originated from Germany and was often made by children. The seats of the miniature chairs store reserves of oil and hold individual wicks to be lit each night. Years of celebrating have resulted in parts of the lamp being burned away.
Menora 2 is sculptor Larry Kagan’s industrial interpretation of the traditional Hanukkah lamp, which ironically takes the shape of a Hanukiah, with one of nine candleholders misaligned as the shamash. Completed in 1980, Kagan repurposed a steel diamond plate customarily found on city sidewalks or commercial stairways to craft Menora 2, currently on view in our exhibition Masterpieces & Curiosities: Memphis does Hanukkah.
While ceremonial, the American flag motif is not one customarily found upon sacred objects, except in the case of Mae Rockland Tupa’s Miss Liberty. Inspired by a childhood memory of reciting Emma Lazarus’s poem “The New Colossus” during a grade school performance, Tupa fashioned the lamp out of Statue of Liberty souvenirs. While from afar her work exudes patriotism, a closer inspection reveals a commentary on America’s changing attitudes towards immigration. Listen to curator Claudia Nahson discuss this lamp on SoundCloud.
Karim Rashid, described by TIME Magazine as “the most famous industrial designer in all the Americas,” is the visionary behind this funky Hanukkah lamp. Made of neon silicon, his 2004 Menorahmorph was inspired by Milan-based design group Memphis, who championed asymmetrical shapes and bold colors. Menoramorph is both on view in our exhibition, Masterpieces & Curiosities: Memphis does Hanukkah, and available in our Shop, ready to become a quirky addition to your own Hanukkah lamp collection.
Being the Light is a site-specific installation and Hanukkah lamp custom-made by Matthew McCaslin in 2000 for Light x Eight, the Jewish Museum’s Hanukkah exhibition of works by contemporary artists who use light. While unconventional in size and structure (it hangs from the wall of our fourth floor gallery) this lamp actually bears many elements of the traditional Hanukiah with eight lights and an electrical circuit that will only illuminate if the shamash is turned on. If you want to light your own tech-inspired Hanukkah lamp this holiday, download our Hanukkah app on iOS or Android.
Canadian artist and metalsmith Harley Swedler created this curious Hanukkah lamp in 1995. An inventive spirit, Swedler crafts unusual pieces of Judaica that allow users to experience ritual with a renewed curiosity. Made of 44 cast and polished aluminum pebbles, priva/SEE circumvents the linear shape and ceremony of Hanukkah.
Franklin, Yurtle and Ninja fans alike will cherish this charming Menurtle designed by Lisa Pierce of Vanilla Studios. Each Menurtle, handcrafted in Maine, is made from repurposed plastic toys, metal candle cups and clay. Good news! We’re shell–ing it at the Jewish Museum Shop this holiday season!
Finally, the centerpiece of Masterpieces & Curiosities: Memphis does Hanukkah, is Peter Shire’s Menorah #7, a fully functional Hanukkah lamp that blurs the line between art and design. A conflation of cheap materials, bold colors, and questionable structure, this lamp represents the aesthetic tenets of Italian design group Memphis, of which Shire was a member. Throughout his career, Shire privileged unconventionality over utility and contributed show-stopping pieces to the Memphis repertoire until the group disbanded in 1988. See Menorah #7 before the exhibition closes on February 12, 2017.
Want to see more? Explore our collection of Hanukkah lamps online or at the Museum, bring the entire family to our Hanukkah Family Day on December 18 or vacation week art workshops December 26-29. See our holiday hours before planning your visit.
From all of us at the Jewish Museum, we wish you a happy holiday full of love, laughter and the warmth of light atop your own Hanukkah lamp.
— Emily Sheiner, Digital Marketing Intern