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Hanukkah in art: Beautiful menorahs to inspire

“Chanukiah” by Barbara Berney. Multilayed digital painting, printed on paper

September, 70 A.D. was a very bad year for Jews. They lost their nation, their temple, and thousands of lives to the Romans. Yet ever since, an almost supernatural optimism pervades Jewish feasts and holidays, particularly on Hanukkah. Jews proved their hope was not in vain as the entire world learned in 1948 – with repeat performances in 1967 and 1973.

Hanukkah runs throughout this week, and once again the greasy food and dreidels, and especially the lights, come out. Everyone parties. Beside the metaphorical meanings of light, Hanukkah lights blaze in solidarity to the great miracle that even Jesus commemorated, known as the “Feast of Dedication.” Jewish history relates it was a rare political and spiritual victory that followed a string of defeats.

Rebelling against forced worship of pagan gods, Jewish revolutionaries successfully pummeled their Greek-Syrian overlords in 139 B.C. Relighting the Temple’s gold candelabrum was a problem, though; with only enough oil for one day, they lit it in faith. Flames flickered from the menorah for eight straight days, giving them time to create a new supply.

Menorahs have inspired artists and craftsmen ever since. Special menorahs for Hanukkah hold nine, rather than seven, candles representing eight days of miracle, as well as a lighting candle.

“Chanukah” painting by Rosa Katzenelson. Acrylic and canvas. Can be purchased as limited giclee print.

The conservative Jewish organization, Chabad, featured the work of several painters this year. Yoram Raanan’s “Spread the Light” shatters the canvas with an explosive quality of many hues, using elements of impressionism and expressionism. This menorah is, in their description, a “primal image,” recalling “the very creation of light.” Cast in every direction, movements imply both a radiant menorah, and a tree of life.

Rosa Katzenelson offers a warm and inviting piece in acrylics. Her “Chanukah” is done in a loose, painterly impasto, with elements of post-impression in the charming domestic scene. But the menorah lights are more comparable to Marc Chagall’s work (if I had to pick another artist) and take off in their own right. Buoyant flowers, fireballs, and miniature galaxies – they are marvelous.

Yitzchok Moully is a young artist and rabbi from New Jersey who is quite prolific. Here he offers a simple, contemporary take on the 30-foot “National Menorah” which is annually placed on the National Mall, in view of the White House. Moully places the silhouette of the minimalist menorah before a brilliant circle of sun. “A light unto the nations” he explains, spreading a “message of light and religious freedom to the White House and beyond.”

(Left) “Chanukah Shel Jerusalem” (Our Jerusalem of Gold) by Davora Lilian. Acrylic /
(Right) “National Menorah” by Yitzchok Moully. Acrylic and ink on canvas.

“Chanukah Shel Jerusalem” (Our Jerusalem of Gold) is another light and contemporary piece by Davora Lilian. A giant menorah looms over the Old City, with gumdrop-like oil lamps. The entire scene is in lollipop pastels, with a few charming details such as a dancing Rabbi skimming over roofs to the left. Hanukkah is an allusion in the Torah, of “the World to Come.” Lilian said, “No eye has seen it” (quoted in both the Bible and Talmud). She used bright colors and abstract images to “excite the viewer to the joy of the future world.”

Curators for Chabad managed to find excellent work in this rather obscure theme. I have to share just one more of them, by David Brook. His oil-painting, “Last Night of Chanukah,” is a joy. “This is a painting I did of the menorah on the last night of Chanukah last year,” he explained. All the candles are lit, and the material surroundings and background are sublimated to the flames. The menorah seems to vibrate or dance with celebratory energy.

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Elsewhere, Barbara Berney is a well-known Jewish artist working in a variety of mediums. “Chanukiah” is a piece of her digital artwork, uploaded in June of 2010. This entire series is dazzling to look at, with photographic and fractal images, textures, and at times Hebrew letters and messages running throughout. Inspired by the reflections of her menorah collection in a double pale-glass window, some of the pieces have up to 100 layers.

“Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp” by Manfred Anson. 1986, bronze. Collection of the National Museum of American History.

Finally, a column on American menorahs shouldn’t omit Manfred Anson and his “Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp.” Anson, a German Jew, lost family members in concentration camps. An artist and collector, he immigrated to the U.S. in 1963 and designed his Hanukkah lamp for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty, in 1986. The bronze piece represents Anson’s gratitude for the freedom he found here, and is part of the National Museum of American History’s collection.

Accords between America and Israel notched up a bit when President Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Although it’s been a verifiable fact for 69 years, the world makes it dangerous to acknowledge. Since then, Jews live in their land, practice their religion, and legislate from their capital city. But they still haven’t restored the temple, which is what the celebration of Hanukkah is all about. It looks like this may be coming soon. What will replace their ancient parting phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem”?