Menorahs: Let there be lights

Art of menorahs

It’s Hanukkah, the Jewish “Festival of Lights.” Serena Altschul fills us in on the mysteries of the menorah:

Hanukkah, the Jewish “Festival of Lights” -- a time for family and dedication, a tradition that wouldn’t be complete without lighting at least one menorah.

David Moore and his daughter, Jami, light one of their 154 menorahs. CBS News

Or, in the case of David Moore and his daughter, Jami, 154 of them.

“We counted them the other day,” he laughed. “We lose track every once in a while, but we now have 154 menorahs in our collection.”

Properly called Hanukkah lamps, their collection is about as varied as they come.

“Here’s a fun one -- you know, Hanukkah’s not complete without a pink Cadillac!”

From Pokemon to one comprised of shoes, to one in the shape of a metal house.

“You open it and put the candles in and then close the door, and you get the flickering lights,” Jami said. 

David Moore started collecting them to add a little spark to the holiday season.

“Christmas season is great; I love the Christmas season, but we’re Jewish, he said. “And so when you have little kids, you know, you want to make the celebration fun and interesting.”

A pink Cadillac menorah. CBS News

So every year, father and daughter go in search of the next great addition -- a bonding experience.

“We just have a good time laughing, you know, making jokes and picking out menorahs that we want to add to the collection,” Jami said, showing off her cupcake menorah.

The Moores’ collection, while impressive, is minuscule compared to the one at the Jewish Museum in New York City.  At last count, they have more than 1,000 -- the largest in the world.

The oldest lamp in their collection dates back to the Renaissance.

Susan Braunstein, the curator, says the legend of the Hanukkah lamp dates back more than 2,000 years, to the time the Jews took back their holy temple in Jerusalem from the Greeks.

Serena Altschul examines a collection of menorahs with curator Susan Braunstein at the Jewish Museum in New York City. CBS News

“When they went to sanctify the temple and they made a new menorah, they only found enough sanctified oil to burn for one day,” Braunstein said. 

Miraculously, it burned for eight days. That is the main reason the holiday is celebrated for the miracle of the burning of the oil. And each night, a new candle is lit. 

A Hanukkah lamp has eight candle holders, plus a servant candle called a “shamash,” used to light the others.  The servant candle must also be on a different level from the others. 

An abstract menorah. CBS News

After that, pretty much anything goes, including wonderful, joyous explosions of color and shapes.

Braunstein says diversity was the museum’s goal. 

“Our collection is really an immigrant collection,” she said, with pieces that came with immigrants who arrived on America’s shores in various migrations.

Something Oded Halahmy knows firsthand. Halahmy, an Iraqi-Jewish artist, is known for his abstract art and Hanukkah lamp sculptures. 

His family was part of a mass exodus from Baghdad to Israel during the early 1950s. His father, who was a goldsmith, left behind some of their most prized possessions.

Sculptor Oded Halahmy. CBS News

“Well, this was really painful for my family,” Halahmy replied. “My father had to sell the collection of Hanukkah lamps that [he] brought from Iraq.”

Halahmy treasures the memory of his father, and now makes at least one new Hanukkah lamp every year.  Each one features his signature pomegranate, signifying love, which is only fitting for the holiday. 

Whether you make them, collect them, or just like to observe the holiday, the Hanukkah lamp is an enduring symbol of light and hope

They are, Halahmy said, “my love. Love, freedom, light. I love it.”     

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