Thursday, December 2, 2010

Crazy with Menorahs

It lost its shine decades ago. It’s smudged, even discolored. It was never big, but now it seems hunched. The fires have taken their toll.
The Menorah from my youth still survives – in fact, it’s the same Menorah that my mother used when she was growing up during the Great Depression. That this modest brass candelabrum has not surrendered to hard knocks and hot wax is itself a small miracle, and it now stands as a quaint but powerful reminder of both the changes and continuity of Jewish life in America.
Hanukkah marks the rededication of the Second Temple following the victory of the Maccabees, and the Menorah recalls that the Temple’s eternal flame had enough oil for only one day, but miraculously, it burned for eight. With the Shamash serving as the “helper candle,” the classic Menorah is the symmetrical representation of that miracle, and it has become one of the central symbols of Judaism. If anything, it’s become even more prominent in recent years. Whether at the White House or in Town Squares across America, including Needham’s, the Menorah is a convenient symbolic counterweight to Christmas trees.
But even among Jews, Menorahs have assumed new meaning. They were often beautifully crafted, some with ornate flourishes, but they’ve increasingly become decorative pieces with artistic vision and style. Variety is all. Menorahs are now made out of anodized aluminum or stainless steel or platinum or cobalt or wood marble or pure silver with a drizzle of gold. They are electronic with pear-shaped bulbs or are fused glass cut with Jewish stars. They are post-modern expressions of liberation or pre-industrial evocations of oceanic waves. They are novelty items and conversation pieces and status symbols. They come with loops and curves and circles, and they render everything from huppas to hippies to the Holy City – a Menorah for every occasion, including Hanukkah.
This boom makes perfect sense at a time when Jewish households are in the equivalent of a Menorah-style arms race. I can’t remember the last Jewish home I entered that had only one Menorah, including my own. We have a beautifully painted ceramic Menorah over the fireplace; a decorative silver Menorah with an engraved base on a book shelf; a sleek modern Menorah in our basement; and a blue-and-orange stuffed toy Menorah that plays “Rock of Ages.”
Come Hanukkah time, we fire ‘em up in a true “Festival of Lights,” as the holiday is also known.
Have we all gone crazy with Menorahs? Yes, we have. But I have no complaints. We should be grateful that we live in a country, and at a time, that allows us to celebrate our faith however we want. As far as I’m concerned, let a million Menorahs bloom.
And yet . . . I will always have a special place for the simple Menorah that my mother used in her youth, and I in mine. When my mother lit its candles as a young girl, she would have never thought that she was deprived with only one Menorah. When you’re of modest means – or flat-out poor – you appreciate all material blessings. To my mother and her family, one Menorah was a blessing. Two would have been an extravagance; three, obscene. And when I was growing up in St. Louis, I thought we had a cool Menorah. The rainbow candles created a different aesthetic each night, and the Menorah itself was elegant, dependable, and always there.
My mom died in 2002, and when my father sold the house several years later, he asked me if there was anything from it that I wanted.
Yes, I told him, there was one thing that I wanted. It now stands proudly in my house, and with Hanukkah upon us, I will dust off its memories, insert the candles, and rekindle my faith.

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