Steeped In Ritual
The Menorah’s Meaning Is Sacred
A festive menorah from Judaica Art is...in Jamaica Estates.
By Matt Hampton
As the days get gradually shorter, and Queens residents across the borough bundle up and gather by the fire (or the radiator), the traditions of the season seem all the more important, if only as the ceremonies we use to bring ourselves closer to our friends and families.
No matter what background we come from, our observances of the past and hopes for the future make Queens, the most diverse place on Earth, also one of the most spiritual. As a part of that spirituality, it’s important that observances of those traditions, and the accoutrements that accompany them, are ready for the holiday season.
One of the most familiar emblems of the season is the nine-stemmed menorah, the centerpiece of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.
For Jewish families in Queens, Hanukkah represents a time of year to reconnect with each other, and to celebrate a miracle of faith that dates back nearly 2,200 years.
Like much of Jewish scripture, the origin of Hanukkah is a source of interpretation and speculation by scholars and religious leaders alike. It is a celebration of rededication, symbolizing the retaking of the Temple in Jerusalem after a dark period of persecution. When the temple was retaken, scripture tells, there was only enough untainted oil to keep the menorah burning for one day. Miraculously, the oil lasted eight, long enough for a fresh supply to be prepared.
Though the holiday itself is not considered to be among the more important of Jewish holy days, Hanukkah is still a poignant and significant representation of the ongoing struggle of people of the Jewish faith.
The Hanukkah Menorah, also called the chanukkiyah, is distinct from a traditional menorah, because it contains the space for an additional two candles. Eight candles, which represent each night that the miraculous oil lasted, and one, known as the “shamash,” which literally translates as “servant.” The shamash is used to light the other chanukkiyah candles, and is kept lit because the candles on the Hanukkah menorah are not to be used as a utilitarian light source. They are symbolic reminders of a centuries-old miracle, serving only that purpose.
At Safra Judaica and Stam, near the intersection of Main Street and Jewel Avenue, the display case is packed with menorahs that evoke both imagination and tradition. The menorahs vary widely in size and formality, all of them designed with utility, some intended to convey a little more.
There are ballerinas, baseballs, basketballs, jungle animals, a fleet of Noah’s Arcs, city skylines, New York City landmarks and Winnie the Pooh. One menorah is set perched atop the Wailing Wall, complete with reverent worshippers. Some are hand-painted; others, like the Disney mascots, seem a bit more mass-produced.
“People usually buy them for gifts,” said Yakov Gliss, manager of Safra. While obviously intended for the younger worshippers, the decorative menorahs represent an important step. All very colorful, seemingly bursting vibrant enthusiasm and excitement, the decorative menorahs are a way for families to connect the significant rituals of the past to the modern interests of the youth.
A giant Hanukkah menorah crafted by Queens School children.
Above these more informal candelabras are larger silver chanukkiyahs, all from Israel, designed to be used formally. Some are very large, and some, like the musical bar line menorah, complete with treble and eighth-note candle-holders, are subtler and more striking all at once.
Next to the menorah display case is an assemblage of candles, olive oil, wicks, and trays designed to protect the table from oil pills and slicks. There are even all-in-one oil cartridges that can be lit and placed in the menorah with a minimum of exertion.
Gliss also shows off plastic bulb-shaped oil containers. Those are for people who want to “put a little more effort into the mitzvah,” he said.
The store, Gliss said, begins to highlight its Hanukkah supply about a month before the holiday begins, and the menorahs start to move with about three weeks to go.
“Two or three weeks before, that’s when we’ll start to sell the supplies, oil, wicks,” he says. “The week before Hanukkah, that’s when it goes crazy.”
When it comes time to celebrate Hanukkah, the options for Jewish families in the borough are virtually endless. There is no shortage of inspiration for families looking to keep the holidays sacred, or just pay their respects to the traditions of countless previous generations.
The most common element of the holidays, no matter what the prevailing culture, is the element of family, and bringing people together to celebrate the commonalities in all of us. Like the Hanukkah Menorah, the holidays represent not a utilitarian light, but a beacon to celebrate a time when people come together and pay respects for traditions of the past, and express hope for the future.