They can be sacred family heirlooms or fine works of art; factory made for functionality or simply hilarious. The Hanukkah menorah is a shape-shifting holiday lamp of limitless variation. It can be lit by oil, candles, AC current or batteries. As long as there are holders for eight candles or lights, the lights are level or on an even slant, and there’s an additional holder for the shamash — the candle that lights the other candles for each night of Hanukkah — it’s kosher.
Peek into any Jewish home after sunset during the Festival of Lights — which begins this year at sunset on Sunday — and you never know what kind of menorah will be flickering in celebration. It could be ultra modern or Old World, beautifully crafted or cobbled together, serious or silly. It could be made out of brass, silver, art glass, ceramic, wood or pretty much anything.
Ranker.com staged a poll for most funny homemade menorah, with the top crowd pleaser being a lineup of Pez dispensers. But other close contenders range from a plumber’s pipe to a careful arrangement of bowling pins. If you can imagine it, it can be a menorah.
Consider Howard Gilman. In 2008, the Santa Rosa theater consultant found himself stuck on a swampy construction site in Macau, doing testing and inspections. It was Hanukkah and he had no menorah.
"You start by remembering what every Jewish kid learned at Hebrew School when they were toddlers: how to glue some nuts onto a strip of wood to make a menorah,” he said.
Gilman offered to trade work to some Australians for scrap angle iron and 8 millimeter nuts that had been left behind by a British rigging company and set to work.
“Then you draw a little sketch and give the parts to the French-Canadian stage lift manufacturer. They have a Chinese welder put them all together for you. It doesn’t look like much, but it will get the job done,” he explained. “Then on your one day off that month you take the ferry to Hong Kong and go the JCC to pick up some candles, dreidels and a yarmulke. When you get back to Macau you invite everyone who helped to come light the candles with you. You tell the story of Hanukkah, say the blessings and enjoy a little moment of international cooperation. Then, if you’re really smart, when you get home to America you put that story in your J-Date (Jewish online dating site) profile and hope that someone will be intrigued. And that’s how I met my wife, and she’s why I moved to Santa Rosa.”
Gilman said even though the two now have many menorahs, some of them beautiful heirlooms, they never fail to light that “grungy scrap parts one” each year.
The menorah is a central feature of Hanukkah, an eight-day festival commemorating the reclamation of the temple after the historic victory of the Maccabees over the army of Antiochus IV. It marks the miracle of the oil, when a tiny cruse of oil that should have lasted only a day, miraculously lasted for eight nights.
The candelabra used during Hanukkah is technically called a Hanukiah, and has nine holders compared to the seven found on a typical temple menorah.