Come Hanukka, Judaica collector Aviram Paz is spoiled for choice as to which hanukkia will take the place of honor alongside the latkes and doughnuts on his family's festive table.
Every one of the scores of hanukkiot carefully arranged to show their best side in a tall glass-fronted cupboard in his living room has a story waiting to be told about the designer and creator of the piece, the specific style, materials used and for whom or where it was intended.
Paz does not suffice in merely collecting, but painstakingly restores hanukkiot, Pessah haggadot and Rosh Hashanah cards and anything connected to soldiers serving in the Jewish Brigade and memorabilia from World War II. He also embarks a the long, winding, historical trail as he journeys into the past of the tens of thousands of items in his awesome collection.
He reels off names, dates, incidents - and connects this with that and that with this - as he relates the background of an attractive hanukkia, pointing out all sorts of interesting facts that are overlooked by most people, such as the trademark or tiny signature on the inside of the base, half-way up the center section, or tucked away in some obscure place he knows to check and others wouldn't even think of.
"These days, the Internet provides so much information at the touch of a button, and has opened up the whole world to the individual collector with on-line sales, auctions and collectors exchanging information with each other sitting in different corners of the world," says the 50-something Judaica sleuth from Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek.
Paz - his name means "gold" in Hebrew - carefully places an intricate hanukkia on the table and alongside it an attractive biblical-style vessel. The hanukkia and vessel are a set, although the latter item is purely decorative. A semi-circle of eight small lamps making up the base of the creation are hollow and meant to be filled with oil. A ninth identical, but not attached, oil lamp - the shamash - that is used to light the others when their turn comes, sits on a small raised platform in the center portion of the hanukkia.
"To create these really small hollow oil lamps was a major feat in the late 1940s," says Paz, a talented artist and wood sculptor who teaches decorative carpentry to junior and high school students.
On either side of the hanukkia's oil lamps, two olive branch sprigs rise in arc, as in the symbol of the State of Israel, where they appear on either side of a menorah. This hanukkia was actually created when the state was founded. The heavy metal hanukkia and accompanying oil vessel, which also fits snugly over the central raised platform, were fashioned in 1948 by Maurice Ascalon who, in the late 1930s, founded the Pal-Bell Company in Tel Aviv.
"Most 1950s artists working in metal had their sights aimed at the tourist market or to export to Jewish communities overseas," explains Paz, as he gently turns the Ascalon Hanukkia upside-down to show the distinctive Pal-Bell trademark (a bell swinging between two L-shaped stands) worked into the base.
"Ascalon, Oppenheim, Dayagi and a few others were very talented, but in my opinion Ascalon was the father of modern Judaica art-deco. He was hugely talented with a very distinct, almost unique style," adds Paz.
Ascalon's oil vessel has a dark green tinge, unlike the hanukkia. "The hanukkia was used widely over the years and probably stood in an open place, but the oil vessel was kept out of sight somewhere, which explains the drastic difference in coloring as we see them 60 years later. One was exposed to the elements, the other was not," comments Paz.
It was Ascalon who introduced the chemically-induced verdigris (green patina) that later became a hallmark of Israeli artistic metalwork items found in many a Diaspora Jewish home in the form of candlesticks, trays, bookends, brass and copper decorative wall plates, ashtrays or letter holders. The most common motifs worked on the items were Jewish religious symbols, birds, animals and fauna, bearded and sandaled biblical figures or lithe young girls in flowing dresses carrying wicker baskets or water jugs high over their heads as they danced in the fields of the Land of Israel.
Born Moshe Klein in 1913 in Hungary, Ascalon had an artistic streak that pulled him out of his hassidic shtetl upbringing, and as a young man he studied at the Academy des Beaux Arts in Brussels, Belgium. Although he left the religious community, where his artistic leanings were frowned upon, Ascalon maintained a deep sense of Jewish ritual and tradition. The fusion of Jewish tradition and Ascalon's natural artistic talents resulted in much-revered creations that can be found in synagogues and public places in many parts of North America and Mexico.
He made aliya in 1934. In 1939, he was commissioned to create a copper relief sculpture for the Jewish Palestine Pavilion at the New York World's Fair. The 14-foot-high sculpture depicting three figures was entitled "The Toiler of the Soil, the Laborer and the Scholar."
"Ascalon's designs were truly exceptional. He changed the face of metal craftsmanship in Israel and his use of symbols, tradition and Israel's nature created a type of artistic Zionism which was extraordinarily different in his early years," says Paz.
A few years before working on the World Fair faÃ§ade, Ascalon founded a company with a brother-in-law. The firm sought to create decorative art from wood and metal hand-hammered by craftsmen. The labor-intensive forged items were of high quality, but of limited quantity.
Toward the end of the 1930s, the former hassid founded Pal-Bell and began to produce large numbers of trademark bronze and brass menorahs and other liturgical decorative items. During the War of Independence, he not only designed munitions for the fledgling Israel Defense Forces, but also refitted his factory premises to produce those munitions for the war effort.
During the mid-l950s, Klein took on the name Ascalon, after the ancient biblical city of Ashkelon. He left Israel for the US, where he arrived as Maurice Ascalon, and quickly gained a reputation as a silversmith. For a time also taught at the Los Angeles University of Judaism's Faculty of Judaica and the Fine Arts.
Prior to leaving for the US, he sold his machinery in Israel to fellow artist and manufacturer Avraham Oppenheim, who also adopted Ascalon's 1950s innovative patina finish. But at a later stage Ascalon bought the machinery back and transported it to America.
Ascalon died in 2003, a few months after celebrating his 90th birthday. He left behind a wealth of permanent installations and ritual objects displayed in public places as well as in religious and educational institutions. His designs are featured in many museum collections.
Having founded Ascalon Studios in New Jersey in the late 1970s, Ascalon continued his mission of creating high-quality decorative and functional metalwork and Judaica, and nowadays one of his sons continues to manufacture the creations.
Another one of Paz's unusual hanukkiot, featuring eight shofarim (rams' horns), was crafted in 1967 by an Ascalon contemporary, Diyagi. Also Hungarian-born, the craftsman manufactured decorative metalwork and Judaica from premises named simply "Diyagi." At a later stage, after he handed it over to his sons, the company was renamed Hen Holon.
The shofar hanukkia - one of the first manufactured by Hen Holon - features extremely small candle housings that, as Paz points out, are characteristic of hanukkiot produced by Diyagi.
Between each shofar, there is a small red Magen David, and on the larger ninth shofar and 'handle' of the hanukkia, a larger Magen David in blue. As yet, Paz hasn't much information on this particular hanukkia, as it only joined his collection last week.
A small hanukkia with signs of the zodiac running down the center column and half-a-dozen animals clambering over other parts sits alongside the Ascalon and Dayagi pieces. "When I saw this and turned it over to see if there was a trademark, I saw the name Keren Hochstein inscribed inside with "To the new immigrant" underneath. When I saw that inscription, I just fell for it, and I'm assuming this was a series specially made to give out to new immigrants - until I can further check it out," he says.