In tough economic times, Jewish couples and families often step up their efforts to reconnect with the holiday traditions passed down through their parents, grandparents and other relatives. A number of innovative designers, meanwhile, are broadening and updating the ways those observing Chanukah can pay tribute to Judah Maccabee, the miraculous endurance of the fabled lighting oil and a general theme of resilience that keeps Judaism’s fire lit, so to speak, with chanukiah that captures the holiday spirit in a contemporary manner.
Some designs are delicate, fused from colorful glass or curving strands of metal that seem to defy gravity. Others are sturdy and industrial by nature, melding the pragmatic with the profound.
No matter what menorah fits your personality, one thing’s for sure — the new breed of menorahs not only make an aesthetic statement and blend in with different décor styles, but stand as a visual representation of what defines the menorah’s owner as a Jew.
Brad Ascalon, who established his career in part in Philadelphia, has been making a splash with edgy, modern menorahs, which have been available at Design Within Reach stores (including the Princeton, N.J., branch) and website (www.dwr.com ) since last fall. Though he acknowledges that the market for Judaica is small, he says there is a clientele looking for something that transcends traditional themes and visual approaches.
“What I strived for with the Ascalon Menorah for Design Within Reach is an understated simplicity combined with an aesthetic that isn’t trend-driven or fleeting from a historical standpoint,” explains Ascalon.
Artist Josh Owen (www.joshowen.com ) is just as pragmatic when approaching the menorah as an art form. The fact that he could not find one that appealed to him served as an inspiration to fashion his own. His factor in the environment, contemporary lifestyles and changing aesthetics.
“The era of disposable consumer products is ending,” Owen says. “Most of us are now acutely aware of our impact on the environment and this trend may be leading people to consider investing in objects with more planned longevity in their designs.
“An item like my design for Areaware is almost typographic in its acceptance of the iconic form language. At the same time it offers the practicality of the conjoined plate base to catch the wax drippings. Perhaps there is a note of practicality, which adds value here.”
Owen’s design (available in Philadelphia at The Judaica Shop (www.judaicashop.net ) at the National Museum of American Jewish History) is considered so innovative that Areaware worked with him to organize a means to integrate his design into the permanent design collection of The National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It has an incorporated plate, which catches the drippings from the candles and provides a safe resting place for a used match while it is still hot.
Anat Basanta, whose menorahs and Judaica are available at: Contemporaryjudaicadesigns.com and Etsy.com, is noted for her whimsical approach, melding traditional symbolism with contemporary practicality. Her Sabra Menorah is made of aluminum disks that are inspired by the elliptical leaves of the Sabra plant, a cactus indigenous to Israel. Individual “leaves” of the Sabra can be arranged at will, “growing” each night of the holiday.
Her Infinity Menorah was designed with inspiration coming from the number 8 and the symbol of infinity, with the idea that generation after generation, from ancient time until infinity, and for eight special days the candles of Chanukah give light. She also offers a Pea Menorah in either aluminum or brass, inspired by the pea shell, where candles replace the peas; as well as the nature-inspired Branch Menorah.
Artist Marit Meisler, born in Old Jaffa and trained at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, goes with the unusual choice of concrete to create a functional, contemporary menorah (available at the Jewish Museum of New York’s shop, thejewishmuseum.org), showing how something enduring and elegant can emerge from common building material.
The candleholder is made of nine movable pieces that can be arranged in countless configurations, allowing versatility, interaction and imagination to take part in their ceremonial use. The cool mirror-finish stainless steel for the candleholders stands in visual contrast to the textural quality of the concrete.
Meisler’s menorah is included in Design Edition JM, a curated selection of modern and contemporary Jewish ritual objects by an international coterie of designers commissioned and collected by the Jewish Museum of New York.
Speaking of a great curated collection, the Design Milk shop (www.design-milk.com ) has assembled its picks of memorable menorahs fashioned by top artists, including the aforementioned Owen, Ascalon and Basanta. There is also an extensive lineup of designs from Los Angeles-based, nationally renowned interior designer Jonathan Adler as well as Tamara Baskin’s statement-making fused glass menorahs.
Other designers scouted by and showcased at Design Milk include Karim Rashid and her futuristic “Menorahmorphs” and former journalist Ian Milne. Milne was writing a piece for a magazine when he came to realize that actually designing accessories and art for the home was more appealing a vocation than writing about it. His Hex Menorah is a study in geometry and subtle symbolism, as the hex shape is made up of equilateral triangles, which combine to form the Star of David.
Israel-based Judaica designer Laura Cowan’s Modern Magnetic Menorah Series blends the clean, streamlined look of stainless steel with bursts of color through the magnetic candleholders. The menorah parts can be assembled and reassembled by adults or children. Her Slide Magnetic Menorah, inspired by the beaches of Tel Aviv, features a design that literally throws a curve toward the traditional linear forms common to traditional menorahs. This, and other clever designs with movable parts, are available at Module R (www.module-r.com ).
No matter how you choose to redefine and refine the way you observe traditions during Chanukah and the rest of the year, the menorah is in itself an emblem that marries together a celebration of historic resilience and traditions with optimism for the future, with those candles literally “lighting the way.” While prices of different artistic visions of the menorah vary dramatically (from Rashid’s $50 model to viaLicentia’s $4,700 model featured on the Design Milk website), Brad Ascalon suggests we take care to pick the right one for our lifestyle and personality the way we would with any household accessory we use every day.
“People who buy menorahs, either for themselves or for others, buy them for longevity over generations,” concludes Ascalon. “They aren’t looking to replace them from one year to the next. When the menorah is in use, it should be about the candles and the flames. The object in and of itself should recede to the background allowing the candles to take over in significance.
“As for the other days of the year, the menorah can remain on display and be appreciated as an elegant, modern sculptural object removed from its intended function, but abundant in symbolism and story.”
This story was originally written for the Chanukah Gift Guide, a special section of the Exponent.
Elyse Glickman is a writer with an expertise in trendy gifts as well as travel and health issues.