Mark and Peachy Levy have collected antique Chanukah lamps for more than 30 years. Although neither grew up with a strong Jewish identity, they have deepened their connection through their Judaica collection, including chanukiyot, or Chanukah menorahs, from around the world, many of which have been catalogued and put on display at museums.
“You see something you like and you buy it. After you’ve bought about three, you are officially a collector,” Peachy said.
Many Judaica collections tend to feature a variety of Chanukah lamps because artists in almost every Jewish community created them, Mark Levy explained, and many of those lamps survived.
One of the oldest collected Chanukah lamps, featured in the book “Luminous Art: Hanukkah Menorahs of The Jewish Museum” by Susan L. Braunstein, was a medieval marble piece, carved in Avignon in southeastern France around the 12th to 13th century. It bears a quote from Proverbs 6:23: “For the commandment is a lamp and the teaching is a light.”
For those who collect and restore Chanukah lamps, the appeal is often multifaceted — from reinforcing Jewish identity and honoring Jewish history and perseverance, to preserving forms of artistic Jewish expression, to carrying on family traditions and maintaining a symbolic reminder of familial origins.
As the importance of Chanukah grows in the United States, so too does the emphasis on the chanukiyah as a modern symbol of Judaism. At a recent auction in New York, collectors displayed a willingness to spend upward of six figures to acquire rare pieces.
“Chanukah today has taken on a great deal of significance in terms of the Jewish calendar,” said Alan Stern, who began collecting Judaica with his wife, Lisa, on their 10th wedding anniversary. “It’s a festival that is beloved by all the Jewish people and it’s one that is kept by all the Jewish people. Any Jewish home that identifies Jewishly has a menorah in the home. So a menorah is a very significant Jewish ritual object, on par with the mezuzah.”
Prior to the adoption of the Magen David as the symbol of the Zionist movement in 1897, the seven-branch menorah was historically the most significant symbol of the Jewish people, said Grace Cohen Grossman, senior curator at the Skirball Cultural Center.
Collecting lamps represents “a historical and cultural kind of treasuring,” she said, explaining that menorahs speak to the values, traditions, customs and socio-economic conditions of their communities of origin.
For some, collecting honors those who lit the lamps despite dire circumstances.
“It’s a very important sense of identification with the struggle of the Jewish people” Alan Stern said. “It is something that has been kept with great sacrifice throughout the centuries. The story of Chanukah itself is one of holding onto beliefs and practices. The Greek goal was to destroy Jewish belief, so the menorah is significant in that it portrays our struggle against our spiritual destruction.”
Lisa also found that collecting was a way to identify with her Judaism.
“Judaica is fraught with emotion,” she said, “because you know that the people who owned these items paid a high price for being born Jewish.”
Knowing the history of the makers and the provenance of their large Eastern European collection is important to Lisa.
“Among those communities decimated by Hitler, these are some of the only remnants that survive,” she said.
Later she explains the joy and privilege of restoring, preserving and displaying.
“You take an inanimate object and restore it and it comes alive again. And because we know the tortured history of the people that owned them, it has special meaning,” she said.
Among the Sterns’ pieces are two matching silver menorahs made by a Polish silversmith. One is said to have survived from a shul looted during Kristallnacht.
They also have whimsical pieces, including a 17th century Dutch menorah with birds, antelopes and buckets to hold the oil, and one from early Palestine that has a musical component. They rotate their collection at the Museum of Tolerance.
President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush used a chanukiyah from the Sterns’ collection during a White House holiday celebration on Dec. 18, 2006.
“The ceramic plaques around the base feature biblical scenes of the Chanukah story,” Bush said, describing the lamp at the lighting. “And between the menorah branches are painted doves, which represent the eternal wish for peace.”
Some collectors are willing to pay significant sums for Chanukah lamps. In May, a rare synagogue ark-form Galician Chanukah lamp, dated 1787, went for $314,000 at Skinner Auction House’s Fine Judaica auction; the piece had been given a presale estimate of $60,000-$80,000. A silver Temple-form lamp from Kiev fetched $189,600, and a 19th century Polish silver Chanukah lamp sold for $142,200. Both pieces were estimated at less than $20,000.
Skirball curator Grossman says that with Judaica, the art often reflects not only Jewish symbols but also the majority culture where they were created.
“With a Chanukah lamp from Germany, you might find oak leaves on it; that’s part of the German tradition. Or you might find a Polish lamp that reflects the Polish tradition of using naturalistic forms of objects. We have one Chanukah lamp from Italy that has what looks like a crenellated roof that’s very much like rooflines of famous buildings from 16th and 17th century Italy,” she said.
The Skirball collection also includes a German lamp shaped like the Arc de Triomphe, a lamp from Prague with a figure of Aaron dressed like a Catholic bishop and the 1813 Neo-classical Hirsch lamp, reminiscent of the Berlin opera house.
For other families, their antique chanukiyot have been passed down from generation to generation. Annette Shapiro’s brother Arnold still uses the large menorah that belonged to their grandfather, David Familian, which she believes he brought with him from Russia in 1915. It is the same menorah they lit on Chanukah when they were children.
Dr. David and Fiona Hallegua gifted the Skirball their family Chanukah lamp in 2005 in memory of their grandparents, Satto and Gladys Koder. The lamp, which is made of hammered brass, is from Cochin, India, where the Koder family settled after leaving Baghdad around 1870. Prior to the lamp coming to the Skirball, the Cochin Chanukah Lamp was used by Dr. Hallegua’s family to celebrate Chanukah in India for more than 90 years.
It joins other family lamps at the Skirball, including one commissioned by Baron Carl Rothschild for his bride Mathilda that features the Rothschild crest including a hand grasping five arrows symbolizing the five Rothschild brothers.
But even among the collectors who don’t have family stories to go with their Chanukah lamps, there are some that hold personal significance.
For Mark Levy, that is the Statue of Liberty Chanukah lamp created by Manfred Anson, a German Jew and one of 20 young men given visas to Australia at the start of World War II. His parents survived Terezinstadt and one sister barely survived Bergen-Belsen. Anson now lives in New Jersey, and he and Levy have become close friends.
Anson became a collector of Statue of Liberty memorabilia in tribute to his new country. The Chanukah menorah he created for the Statue of Liberty centennial in 1986, which can be seen on display at the Skirball, is based on a cast of a Statue of Liberty souvenir from 1885, sold to help raise funds for the statue’s base.
Yet despite their celebrated collection, the Levy Chanukah tradition of more than half a century remains the same.
“We light a brass menorah we bought at Solomon’s on Fairfax,” Mark said.
“For $15 in 1956,” Peachy added.