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Branching out

or a ceremonial artifact steeped in Jewish tradition, the Hanukkah menorah has surprisingly become a darling of contemporary designers. Its roots go back more than 2000 years, and when its candles are lit each of the eight nights of Hanukkah (which begins Dec. 15), they commemorate the Maccabee victory over the Greek-Syrian army, and the defeat of religious oppression.

From a religious point of view, the menorah's "technical requirements" are simple, says Rabbi Robert Harris, associate professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. "It has eight major branches, plus one that is traditionally called the shamash, which needs to be placed above the eight, or in front of the eight," he says.

This leaves a lot of room for interpretation, a lot of ways for designers to make them "fancy schmancy," he says.

And they have. Menorahs tend to "pick up the stylistic trends of the local place and time they come from," says Susan L. Braunstein, a curator at New York's Jewish Museum and author of two books on menorahs. In the 1950s, for example, they reflected the modernist design of new synagogues springing up at that time. Today's menorahs tell a story, too, not just about religious freedom but about a growing, global passion for design. They reflect new, experimental materials, a playful spirit, and a fascination with how -- and if -- tradition can be updated for the 21st century.

Here, five designers talk about the menorahs they created, and what happens when modernism meets the traditional.


Bruce R. MacDonald, 48 BRM Design & Metalworks, Burlington, Vt.

Occupation: Artist Materials: Aluminum and polished stainless steel

Why did you design a menorah? Fifteen years ago a friend of mine who is a candlemaker wanted

some way to display her Hanukkah candles in her booth at a trade show. I came up with something

and she came back with orders for 30 of them. I filled the 30 orders and then reorders came in

and suddenly I was in business. I sold thousands of them. I was Joe Menorah salesman for a few years. Now I do large-scale art pieces.

What inspired this menorah? I'm not Jewish so I didn't grow up with any preconception of what

a menorah should be. I was looking for simplicity, trying to focus on making an object with the

least amount of parts I could possibly make.

Was it hard to design? A menorah is a tricky object. It's like a sonnet, a very particular thing.

It has to have this and it has to have that, and there is no variation. Trying to work within that form

is a real challenge.

What do customers tell you they want in a menorah? People like them to be small enough to

be able to put them in the kitchen sink. On Hanukkah, you're supposed to let the candles burn

down; you can't extinguish them. I've had multiple Jewish women tell me they're worried that if

they have to go out they don't want to leave the candles burning in the house.

Available at:; or The Artful Home, 877-223-4600;


Marit Meisler, 32 Cemment Design, New York Occupation: Industrial designer

Materials: Concrete and stainless steel

Why did you design a menorah? The Judaica world is

usually very traditional, and there are a lot of people who are young,

either in age or heart, who don't necessarily relate to only traditional designs.

I am breaking the usual preconception of what we think the menorah is.

What's unique about it? There are separate components. You can put them in a different order.

Every time you play with it you can find a new way of assembling it.

What inspired your menorah? The idea was to take a religious artifact and incorporate a very

contemporary material that we think of as cold and architectural. It becomes very warm,

very alive. I am trying to incorporate the holy [with] the mundane.

Describe your childhood menorah. I grew up in Israel. We only had one: It was simple, the

traditional form that hangs on the wall and is made of brass.

How would you like to see it used? Not too close to the draft.

Available at: Koo de Kir, 65 Chestnut St., 617-723-8111; or


Kathleen Walsh, 33Walteria Living, Los Angeles

Occupation: Ceramicist

Materials: Porcelain,

white pine

Why did you design

a menorah?

I'm Catholic, actually. I (grew

up with) an advent wreath with candles. I think the aesthetic

is more of a universal object

that everyone can grasp and understand. I look to design

objects, not necessarily things that directly affect me. And

I like the idea of updating


What appeals to you about the form? I think it's a beautiful object. And I like the idea of updating tradition, though you are treading on treacherous territory when you change too much. I'm doing something out of context, but keeping it as traditional as possible.

How would you like to see it used? Year-round.

Available at: Koo de Kir, 65 Chestnut St., 617-723-8111,

or at


Laura Cowan, 35, Tel Aviv Occupation: Silversmith and Judaica artist

Materials: Stainless steel, anodized aluminum

What inspired this menorah? I'm inspired by things I see around me. I was watching old footage

of the moon landings in the '60s, and it seemed really futuristic. I also do a rocket menorah that

looks like rockets shooting into space.

Why do you design Judaica? My general philosophy is if you do something appealing, it's more

likely people will use it. By bringing Judaica into people's homes, you are also bringing Judaism.

Describe your childhood menorah. It was an ugly green one that used to wobble, and we used to catch our hair in the fire. I was trying to design something that wasn't like that.

How do you hope it will be used? Just like an executive toy. You can slide the cones along and

change the positions and the colors.

Available at: The Jewish Museum Shops, 212-423-3211 or


Marilyn Davidson, New York

Occupation: Designs

home accessories for large


Materials: I designed it for

Nambé and they use an alloy that's sort of a secret pie dough recipe. But it looks similar to silver and you don't have to

polish it.

What inspired this menorah?

In working with a manufacturer, designers have a responsibility

not just to their own vision but

to the clients the manufacturer

is serving. Of all the people I

deal with, Nambé is the most in synch with my personal design ethic.

Which is? My most natural inclination is as a contemporary designer. My own personal

sentiment is modern.

Describe your menorah. It's a design that has a spirituality and a sleekness. It rises up in

a way that is light. The lights appear individually so that you can see them clearly, and it

has a sleekness to it and a reflectivity. It also seems to echo some other religious forms.

Some people read Asian shapes into it.

Available at: The Jewish Museum Shops, 212-423-3211 or