Dusting Off The Menorah

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Preparing for the holidays means opening up cupboards, unearthing boxes from the basement and dusting off once a year decorations and family heirlooms. The menorah is one of these seasonal decorative objects. Judith Kampfner reports.

Kampfner: Oded Halahmy, an Iraqi Jewish sculptor likes to put an outline of his hand on his menorahs. But instead of the word menorah, he uses the term preferred in the Middle East -hanukkiyah in the single, plural hanukkiot. Some of the lamps in his Soho studio are eight feet high.

Halahmy: Well I remember it on the hanukkiot in Baghdad. We have them in our home you know and the symbol on the hanukkiah can be 2 hands one on the right and one the left.

Kampfner: The thumb is slightly bent?

Halahmy: I felt like to make a bird of peace - it looks like a dove head for peace and that's what I'm using in my hanukkiah.

Kampfner: An artist can make the menorah personal or political or abstract. There is no religious prescription. Form needs to follow function only in as much as there have to be eight candles with a different servant candle called the shamash for the lighting. Daniel Kestenabaum who heads up an auction house which specializes in Judaica explains that unlike some items of Jewish usage the menorah does not have to conform.

Kestenbaum: A Torah scroll that was written at any time in any period of the world will look the same but the Chanukah lamp has this charming dispensation in that there aren't particular laws instructing the user that it must be a particular shape. It's wonderful when the Jew has this possibility to utilize his love for the precept and exercise his artistic bent.

Kampfner: Interest in rare Hanukkah lamps is growing - individuals and institutions come to Kestenbaum for grand antique menorahs. From the fifteenth century onwards the lamps took on the characteristics of the countries they were made in. Eastern European Menorahs are very solidly built

Kestenbaum: They would utilize clocks in the centerpiece they would have roundels which might have stated the names of members of the family which utilized these lamps, Polish eagles or the double headed eagle representing Russia, they were made of brass.

Kampfner: The Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side has one of the world's largest collection of menorahs displayed to show the geographic variations. But some of the lamps of Iraqi sculptor Oded Halhamy will be on a special display at the Yeshiva University Museum. Curator Gabriel Goldstein says they will be lit in great hall of the Center for Jewish History - the first time the center has had an Iraqi Chanukah celebration.

Goldstein: Its one of the most ancient Jewish cultures stems back thousands of years the whole culture of Iraq is of great interest now - current events make people very aware.

Kampfner: Music from the Midrash Ben Ish Hai Iraqi Jewish choir from Queens and Long Island. Will herald the lighting of menorahs which have a strong Middle Eastern influence.

Kampfner: Halahmy was born in Baghdad at a time when 40% of the population of the city was Jewish. He was part of the exodus of Jews who left Iraq for Israel in the 1950's. His work is nostalgically influenced by his childhood - gates to the old city of Baghdad, spoons from his mother's cooking. Palm trees are on the back plates of his menorahs and pomegranates form the base of the candles.

Halahmy: The pomegranate - it's a symbol of love fertility and prosperity, for me it's a very beautiful and sensual and I attract to use it in the Hanukkiot.

Kampfner: Each menorah is individual - and Halahmy's relationship to his sculptures is equally dynamic.

Halahmy: This statue we are standing in from of it's title is King of Kings - sometimes in my studio, the statue talks to me and I talk to it and this one said in Arabic - Ya Allah
In God we trust

Kampfner: so your statues talk to you in Arabic, English and Hebrew?

Halahmy: yes and I talk to them back the same way.

Kampfner: Halahmy sent one of his menorahs to the coalition authority at the Royal Palace in Baghdad and it was lit last Friday in a Chanukah ceremony in the throne room of Saddam Hussein and attended by American Jewish soldiers as well as the small Jewish community. Not all menorahs can have diplomatic significance or be of museum quality. Mass production results in Disney lamps and plastic electric candles.

Kestenbaum: So many lamps have made in China at the bottom - that's a reflection of our era.

Kampfner: At Daniel Kestenbaum's auction house, he's come across an exceedingly ugly 1850's German lamp with a 9-headed griffin which sold at Sotheby's for $50,000! But the majority of menorahs tare family treasures cherished for their beauty and symbolic power. Hanukkah celebrates Jewish history when the Temple was desecrated and then rededicated.

Kestenbaum: As delineated much further in the Apocrypha in the book of Maccabbees, this was seen to be an enormous political victory, guided by God, it became something Jews would always want to commemorate and the lighting of the candles brings ideas of liberation and freedom

Kampfner: Early in 2004, Oded Halahmy will go to Iraq to open a center for Jewish culture. It will be his first trip back since 1951.For WNYC, I'm JK