Menorahs that go above and beyond the usual for Hanukkah

All of Thau’s hanukkiot are purely decorative. Most would be a fire hazard if lit. Some are not even kosher for use and some are made with magnetic parts.

Penny Harow Thau (photo credit: Courtesy)
Penny Harow Thau
(photo credit: Courtesy)
By day, Beit Shemesh resident Penny Harow Thau is a social worker in Kiryat Gat. In her personal life, she has a burning need to create that expresses itself in multiple ways. The most unique expression of Thau’s creative energy is vividly displayed in her collection of 200 hanukkiot (a menorah specifically for Hanukkah) that she built from scratch, each with its own theme.
Noting that her children’s rooms have also been decorated thematically, down to the matching mezuzah cases and lighting fixtures, Thau’s friends have suggested that she should work in interior design. Other friends who have enjoyed her themed parties suggested that she should be a party planner. In addition, Thau is also known for her creative mishloach manot (Purim gift baskets) and the personalized, handcrafted silver jewelry, which she sells at pninathalev.com.
But her most distinctive avenue of creative expression is, without a doubt, the decorative hanukkiot.
Thau, who was born in Idaho to a military family, made aliyah 22 years ago. She started her collection with some leftover building material from her first Israeli home.
“We were building our house in Beit Shemesh, traveling back and forth [from the US]. I found a lot of broken tiles cut perfectly.” Her creative instinct urged her to pair those tiles with her then-toddler son’s toys, to make her first creative hanukkiah.
More than 200 hanukkiot later, she has amassed a large collection based on a wide range of themes, such as Superman, The Seven Dwarfs and a school bus.

All of Thau’s hanukkiot are purely decorative. Most would be a fire hazard if lit. Some are not even kosher for use and some are made with magnetic parts “so the pieces can be rearranged each night of Hanukkah.”
By Jewish law, in order to be considered kosher for fulfilling the mitzvah of lighting on Hanukkah, the lights must all be on the same level. Hanukkiot that randomly have lights set higher or lower are not considered kosher.
Some authorities assert that the lights have to be in one straight line, although that appears to be a matter of dispute. Thau’s tallest hanukkiah, a microscope with test tubes for the candles, is 6 feet (1.83 m.) tall, well below the maximum of 31 feet (9.5 m.).
“There are different customs [related to kosher menorahs],” she explained. “People don’t really know [the laws], but once they know them, they are able to apply them to other hanukkiot.”
In order to teach children these laws in a fun way, Thau holds workshops for kids from pre-school to ages 12 or 13. Each child picks a favorite from her massive collection, and they discuss which are kosher and which are not and why.
“At the end of the sadna [workshop], I have one I make out of chocolate and I give out pieces,” she elaborated.
“My kids are proud of it. I would do it in their ganim [pre-schools]. None of their friends’ mothers did this.”

SINCE HER hanukkiot are not usable and she doesn’t offer them for sale, she created a coffee table book called Festival of Lights to preserve and share her artistry. In the past, the book was sold at the Steimatsky and Tzomet Sefarim bookstore chains. Today, she mostly sells the book from home or at craft fairs and Hanukkah boutiques.
“The book probably has 100 of the 200 [hanukkiot],” Thau explained. “There are pictures of them, along with kitschy captions. Kids love the pictures. The words are more for adults reading along with kids. All the captions are in English.”
She hasn’t accepted commissions to date, but she stated that, “I have 200 of them, so for the most part, I probably have it.”
It’s hard to get her to claim one of the collection as her favorite, but she does admit to favoring, “the ones where the kanim [candle holders] are actually the things that make up the hanukkiah itself.”
She highlighted one made with pencil sharpeners, “because the candles go directly into the sharpener.” She’s also fond of “the sewing one, with spools of thread.” And the one that has dominoes placed in order, coordinating with the nights of Hanukkah. Her oldest one, made with Fischer Price toys, is a sentimental favorite.
Thau has slowed down creating the hanukkiot themselves. “I thought I was finished. I had to make myself stop.” She describes her creation of new hanukkiot as “dormant.”
Now she has a different vision. She wants to create a museum “that adults can walk through with their kids, discussing what makes them kosher or not kosher.” She envisions each hanukkiah displayed separately in a permanent exhibit. Visitors would walk through the museum with a checklist of features to compare to each hanukkiah.
“I would love to have this! I can envision this in my head,” she enthused. “But I would need to find a backer, because each would need its own glass display case.”
Since moving the hanukkiot is both time-consuming and could result in breakage, she’s explicitly not looking for places to hold a one-time event, but rather to create “a wonderland where the children visiting discuss them with their families.”
She’s already settled on a name: Olam HaHanukkiot (World of Hanukkiot).
“Adults are just as amazed [by the collection] as kids are. They encouraged me to do something with it. It’s almost just as much fun for the parents.”
UNTIL HER museum becomes a reality, Thau displays her collection in glass cases in her home. Local summer camps have brought groups to see them and, of course, “anyone who comes to visit sees the cabinet. Even more are displayed upstairs,” she noted.
Visitors remark that they find the collection colorful, and it’s hard to know where to look first.
Thau’s creative process often starts with a dollar store item.
“Just seeing an idea would spark my creativity. Once I saw something I thought would work, it morphed into something,” she noted. Not including the thinking and purchasing stages, each hanukkiah took her an average of 30 to 90 minutes to create.
The whole project has been self-funded and Thau estimates that she has thousands of dollars invested. Given the fluidity of finances, she explained, “I don’t know if I could create this huge menagerie now financially.”
Unlike her silver jewelry work, none of her materials are really precious. Nevertheless, competitors have copied her creative impulses to create something marketable.
“I’ve seen, since I’ve done mine, ones made of ceramic that mimic my ideas. I find it frustrating. They take the idea and make it usable in ceramic. I had that idea first, so it’s frustrating.”
Thau issues a challenge.
“Give me a category and I can probably show you a hanukkiah related to that topic.”
Asked to name ones with Jewish themes, she mentioned ones that feature tefillin, a young girl lighting a hanukkiah, grandparents sitting with a pile of Hanukkah presents and one with Israeli soldiers and an Israeli flag.
She has created hanukkiot made out of candy, a xylophone one, ones based on Sesame Street, Winnie the Pooh, fire engines, airplanes, Snoopy, erasers, graduates holding a diploma, skateboards, Cinderella and on and on.
“Everyone has a different favorite,” she concluded.