Bright lights

120 hanukkiot from all over the world are on display at the Israel Museum.

Bright lights (photo credit: Laura Kelly)
Bright lights
(photo credit: Laura Kelly)
In the chilly and drizzly evenings of Hanukka in Jerusalem, the neighborhood of Mea She’arim shines. In nearly every window is a lit hanukkia shimmering through a glass case, a sea of flickering lights announcing to everyone that the festival has arrived.
Mea She’arim served as an inspiration for Israel Museum Judaica curator Chaya Benjamin and her colleagues, whose display of hanukkiot from around the world covers a wall of the museum’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Wing for Jewish Art and Life.
The 120 hanukkiot in the exhibit come in numerous shapes and materials, ranging from a Polish one in porcelain to a ceramic and stone one from an island off the coast of Tunisia. The showcases resemble windows, and the light over each of the lamps mimics a flame by amplifying the shadows the hanukkia makes.
The museum’s full collection boasts 1,000, which Benjamin occasionally rotates into the exhibit.
Even though it is most popular during the holiday season, the collection of 120 is on display all year long in the Jewish Art and Life wing’s “Cycle of the Jewish Year” section.
According to Benjamin, the richness of this collection shows that the hanukkia, more than any other Jewish ritual object, demonstrates Jews’ involvement with the cultures in which they have lived throughout the world.
She explains that the lamps are “really an expression” of Jewish artistic creativity, because Jewish law places almost no restrictions on their design. As is evident in the exhibit, Jewish craftsmen could model their hanukkiot after whatever they chose, from an Arabesque palace to a sofa. They could even include folk art like mermaids and knights.
One from Austria-Hungary is decorated with the Austrian Empire’s coat of arms, a bust of Emperor Joseph II, and several regal-style lions. In addition to being an elaborate Jewish object, this hanukkia was meant as a gesture of appreciation from 18thcentury Austrian Jews to Joseph II after he enacted the Edict of Tolerance – a law that allowed Jews and Protestants to practice their religions and to hold jobs such as blacksmiths and carpenters.
A Moroccan hanukkia nearby offers a glimpse into Jewish life in that country at the beginning of the 20th century. Several years ago, 97-year-old Meir Ben-Ammi of Beit She’an visited Benjamin to tell her how he and his father had crafted this piece when Ben-Ammi was young. Then tinsmiths in Mazagan, Morocco, they created it out of recycled sardine cans and decorative glass. Canning sardines was largely a Jewish industry in Morocco, and the tins were also used to make tzedaka (charity collection) boxes there. Ben-Ammi’s hanukkia was a wedding gift: The newlyweds’ initials – “S” for Shimon and “E” for Esther – ornament the top.
The motif of birds is prevalent in hanukkiot from all over the world, as a Polish one on the far wall illustrates. That piece is adorned with birds and folkloric forest animals such as bears and lions, and another of the lamps, the Algerian “Eden” hanukkia, sports 27 birds.
How are birds relevant to the holiday of Hanukka? Benjamin cites Psalms 84: “My soul yearns and also pines for the courts of the Lord... the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a next for herself.”
One of the Israel Museum’s collectors theorizes based on this excerpt that the motif of birds symbolizes Jews’ desire to return to Israel, Benjamin explains. Even Tunisian and Yemenite Jewish communities, which were disconnected from the rest of the Jewish world for hundreds of years, included this motif in their hanukkiot. Like those hanukkiot, Jews were wandering for 2,000 years, the curator says; now they’re all here in Israel.