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Menorahs' Designs Tell Stories of Freedom

Display at Skirball Center shows adaptation of Jews living among other cultures.

December 13, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

If there is one object that embodies the theme of freedom for the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, an unusual menorah on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles must be high on anyone's list.

Its nine branches of the holiday candelabra are topped by miniature copies of the Statue of Liberty. The menorah candles are set in the base of the torch held in the upstretched arm of Lady Liberty.

Every menorah symbolizes the covenant between God and the Jewish people and the continuity of tradition through the generations. But this one also celebrates America, and the liberty Jews have found here.

It was gratitude for living in America that moved Manfred Anson to design the "Statue of Liberty Hanukkah Lamp" in 1985 in honor of the statue's centennial in 1986. He left Germany to escape the Nazis in 1939 and eventually immigrated to the United States after serving during World War II in New Guinea with the Australian army.

Grace Cohen Grossman, senior curator for Judaica and America at the Skirball in Los Angeles, said the unusual style of that menorah fits into a pattern of adaptation to surroundings in the Diaspora while preserving the faith. "In the encounter and exchanges with people among whom they lived all over the world, the style of Jewish art changed," she said.

The Statue of Liberty menorah is one of 35 Hanukkah lamps on display at the Skirball's exhibition: "Visions and Values: Jewish Life From Antiquity to America." Other Hanukkah menorahs, known as Chanukia, reflect the architecture of the country of their origin, such as the domes of Eastern Orthodox churches and Islamic mosques.

Whatever the artistic variations, she said, "the real core of the celebration of Hanukkah is the issue of religious liberty, which is very much of what we embrace in America."

The eight-day holiday begins Friday evening.

The Statue of Liberty menorah, one of a limited edition of 40, is not the only menorah to use symbolism to portray the quest for religious freedom.

Rabbi Robert Gan of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles has one depicting the skyline of New York City in the base below the candles. Fashioned before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, it includes the World Trade Center as well as the Empire State Building and other landmarks.

"It's very symbolic for Jews in that the largest immigration of Jewish life was at the turn of the century, and the port of entry for the most part was through Ellis Island and New York City," said Gan, president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis.

It is important that Jews remember that, he said.

As Jews prepare to celebrate Hanukkah, Gan and others said they do not want its meaning to be eclipsed by superficial comparisons to Christmas, with all the gift giving, holiday cards, family gatherings and commercialization.

"Religious freedom is an issue you always have to be reminded of," Gan said. "Perhaps in the course of our everyday lives we take it for granted, but I think it's a gift we need to be reminded of ... in this incredibly multicultural and multi-religious community."

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, director of the Jewish Studies Institute at Yeshiva of Los Angeles and a prominent member of the Orthodox community, agreed. "Within my neck of the woods, the gratitude toward America -- the consciousness that America has been the single most important and most gracious host for the Jewish community in exile for 2,000 years -- is ever-present."

That is a far cry from the experience of Jews two millenniums ago that prompted the observance of Hanukkah.

In those days, Israel was ruled by the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Antiochus desacralized the Jerusalem Temple and attempted to subvert and eventually extinguish Jewish culture and religion by Hellenizing it.

Jews were forbidden by religious law to bow to statues or idols.

Inspired by Mattathias and led by his son, Judah, a small group of Jews called Maccabees led a bloody revolt.

They eventually won three years later, but the Temple had been desecrated. After it was cleaned and repaired, it was rededicated to God in 164 BC by lighting the menorah. According to legend, there was only enough oil to keep the menorah (which used oil instead of candles) alight for one night.

Miraculously, the oil lasted eight days and nights until more could be obtained. The eight days of Hanukkah represent a retelling of that story.

In contrast to a despotic ruler who tried to impose his own favored religious views on the Jews, the separation of church and state in America -- and the general religiosity of a majority of Americans of other faiths -- actually makes life better for Jews, Adlerstein said.

"Many of us would argue that people with religious faith, when religious faith evolves to a point of inclusion, which it has in many faiths in America, is going to be more supportive of Jews and Judaism and our ability to live here and live our lives in peace than countries that have abandoned God and replaced religious beliefs with a new mantra," he said.

Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, owns a menorah made of Jerusalem stone fashioned to look like the Western Wall in that city.

"Clearly the connection there is freeing our Jerusalem, which is also what the holiday is about," he said.

Each generation's artistic interpretation of Hanukkah tends to reflect its own life and times, he said.

Recently he received a new one as a gift from a group he taught in San Francisco. This menorah is topped by a big heart. In the middle, two hands reach out to each other. The bottom is inscribed, "Deeds of Loving Kindness Heal the World."

"We've moved to a different period," Artson said. "The period we're now in is one in which people are interested in inner meaning and spirituality, so you start to get menorahs that reflect that."

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