December 18, 2008
The many miracles of the family menorah
Alex, Ryan, Josh and Ellie Dubin light about 25 menorahs every night of Chanukah
From painted-clay preschool classics to sterling silver family heirlooms, the eight bright lights of the chanukiyah have a unique and artful way of revealing our values, holding our histories and telling our stories.
That's a Big Ball of Wax
As a preschooler, Alex Dubin was always mesmerized by Chanukah candles. Every year, he would sit and stare as the flames danced over his growing collection of menorahs -- the projects he created in school; or the ones he made with his grandmother, a ceramic artist; or with his mother, herself pretty crafty.
Today, Alex, 17, and his three younger siblings -- Josh, 15, Ellie, 12 and Ryan, 6 -- still love to stare into the candles, and they still make their own menorahs -- and light all of them.
Every night of Chanukah, the Dubin kitchen turns into a glowing testament to art, family and nostalgia, with as many as 100 menorahs (fewer on the candle-heavy later nights) burning on a foil-covered island and table.
Most of their menorahs are displayed year-round in little cubbies in the living room, which fits well in their house, where every inch is covered in homemade art.
Parents Cindy and Mark host a yearly Chanukah celebration, when friends and family come over to do art projects, eat and, of course, light the candles.
While the guests are content to light and then go eat dinner, the Dubin kids stay in the kitchen, staring into the flames and at the colorful wax stalagmites. For the past six or seven years, they have let the wax drippings build up -- Alex has one with a square-foot mass of wax.
Some of the menorahs are favorites: the one crafted from pottery from an Israeli archaeological site, preschool clay ones, the double-glazed ceramics they made with grandma, and any number made from pipes, coffee cans, bolts, metal address numbers, old loaf pans and any other inflammable hardware they can spot.
Grandma Marlene Zimmerman, whose work is exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center, has one menorah that didn't make it onto the Dubin family display: Her replica of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights is in President Bill Clinton's museum in Arkansas. When Clinton was in office, his wife, Hillary, chose Zimmerman's Breed Street Menorah for the National Treasures Collection, and in 1999 Hillary lit that menorah at the White House Chanukah reception.
The Promise Menorah
Isaac Bialik and Shawna Brynjegard were high school sweethearts and inseparable at UCLA in the early 1990s.
So when Bialik traveled to Israel in 1992 -- without Brynjegard -- he was thinking about her much of the time. When he spotted a blue-and-purple ceramic-pomegranate menorah made by the Israeli artist Avram Gofer in a shop on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, he knew he had to get it for her.
He came home a couple of weeks later, and gave her the menorah on the first night of Chanukah.
"I told her that from now on we would use this every Chanukah together, and that we would never be apart again," said Bialik, who works on communications for Deloitte, an auditing and financial consulting firm. Bialik didn't officially propose to Brynjegard for another year, but today Isaac and Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik (or B2) still light that chanukiyah.
Isaac is himself a Judaic artist (www.nicejewishartist.com), and Shawna is a rabbi who performs lifecycle events for those not affiliated with synagogues. By now, their pomegranate menorah has been joined by others in their Santa Clarita-area home. Their daughters, Mira (9), Yael (7) and Aviva (5), have added their own signature pieces and the family has bought a few more menorahs. Each night of Chanukah they light about five menorahs from their ever-growing collection, and while the other menorahs rotate in and out of the ritual, the Brynjegard-Bialiks always light their "Promise Menorah" together.
The Uncle's Menorah
Sheldon Ginns doesn't even know the name of the great-great-uncle who gave him his brass menorah more than 60 years ago. He was known simply as The Uncle, the first of the family to come to the United States from Berdichev, Ukraine, around 1900. The Uncle was in his late 90s when he died, and just before then he divvied up his belongings between his closest relatives (his only child had died). The Uncle gave his chanukiyah, which he had held onto through years of poverty, to Ginns' grandfather, who immediately passed it along to Sheldon, then 8 years old.
The cast-brass menorah, whose edges are worn down form years of polishing, features two lions holding up a heart inscribed with the blessing for the candles, topped by an ornate crown.
Ginns, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a retired architect, and he remembers lighting the brass menorah every Chanukah and playing with it as a toy the rest of the year.
The menorah took on a place of honor in his own home, as he and his wife and two sons lit it every Chanukah.
Today, the brass menorah is the only family heirloom Ginns has. His grandfather was the eldest of 12 siblings, and the only one to come to the United States before World War II; no one else survived the Holocaust. His grandmother was the eldest of 10, and also the only survivor in her family. Both looked for their family for years.
When Ginns took the menorah to the Los Angeles-based Lower East Side Restoration Project to have it cleaned and repaired a few years ago, he learned that the menorah dated back to the 18th century and was probably from Poland. He also learned that the reason the menorah had two shamashes -- candle cups set higher than the rest -- was because it was also used weekly for Shabbat candles, a sign that the family who first owned it was poor and couldn't afford both a chanukiyah and Shabbat candelabra.
He found out that the chanukiyah was originally an oil lamp and had been converted to hold candles. The Restoration Project restored it to its original state for Ginns.
He lights the menorah every two or three years, and he plans to pass it along to one of his five grandchildren some day to continue the tradition of the Ginns family menorah.
When Judy Stern (not her real name) was a kid, her mother always made sure to pull out the menorah in December, and she recited the Hebrew blessing. Stern's father wasn't Jewish -- they had a Christmas tree, too -- and aside from that little menorah, not much else Jewish happened in their lives.
Then Stern landed at Hamilton High School near the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and she made friends with some Jewish kids who invited her to the Jewish Student Union at school, and then to a youth group -- where she made a disturbing discovery.
At a Chanukah celebration, the teens recited the blessing over the candles -- and it was different from the one her mother had always said.
That evening, Stern realized that her mother, who herself grew up with little Jewish education, had been reciting the only blessing she knew -- the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread.
Stern began saying the correct blessing, which she still does to this day. She married a rabbi (ironically, so did her brother), and has four kids. Now, every Chanukah, as they say the brachot over the candles, her mother is there to celebrate with them, and to say, Amen.
Blessings From Bullets
Zane Buzby has restored many menorahs at her Lower East Side Restoration Project, but one of her favorites is what she calls the Palestine Menorah.
The owner, Rivka Greensteen, brought it to Buzby badly in need of repairs and restoration. The dented and dirty silver-plated brass rectangle was shaped like a wall of Jerusalem and engraved with lions and a Jerusalem scene. The candleholders fronting the wall needed care.
Greensteen told Buzby what she knew about the menorah. It had been brought from Russia to America by her grandfather, and was passed down to Greensteen's father, and then to Greensteen. The family always used this menorah, and always had a family gathering on the fifth night of Chanukah -- but they didn't know why.
When Buzby got the menorah, she immediately recognized it as one from Palestine -- pre-state Israel. The candle cups, she told Greensteen, were made from bullet casings. Greensteen put the rest together. Her grandfather's brother was an early pioneer in Palestine, and must have sent the family the chanukiyah. He was killed in the 1930s in an Arab uprising.
This brother was the fifth son in his family, and it is probably no coincidence, Greensteen guessed, that it is his menorah that brings the family together each year on the fifth night of Chanukah.