The many miracles of the family menorah


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Alex, Ryan, Josh and Ellie Dubin light about 25 menorahs every night of Chanukah


From painted-clay preschool classics to sterling silver family heirlooms, the eight bright lights of the chanukiyah have a unique and artful way of revealing our values, holding our histories and telling our stories.

That’s a Big Ball of Wax

As a preschooler, Alex Dubin was always mesmerized by Chanukah candles. Every year, he would sit and stare as the flames danced over his growing collection of menorahs — the projects he created in school; or the ones he made with his grandmother, a ceramic artist; or with his mother, herself pretty crafty.

Today, Alex, 17, and his three younger siblings — Josh, 15, Ellie, 12 and Ryan, 6 — still love to stare into the candles, and they still make their own menorahs — and light all of them.

Every night of Chanukah, the Dubin kitchen turns into a glowing testament to art, family and nostalgia, with as many as 100 menorahs (fewer on the candle-heavy later nights) burning on a foil-covered island and table.

Most of their menorahs are displayed year-round in little cubbies in the living room, which fits well in their house, where every inch is covered in homemade art.

Parents Cindy and Mark host a yearly Chanukah celebration, when friends and family come over to do art projects, eat and, of course, light the candles.

While the guests are content to light and then go eat dinner, the Dubin kids stay in the kitchen, staring into the flames and at the colorful wax stalagmites. For the past six or seven years, they have let the wax drippings build up — Alex has one with a square-foot mass of wax.

Some of the menorahs are favorites: the one crafted from pottery from an Israeli archaeological site, preschool clay ones, the double-glazed ceramics they made with grandma, and any number made from pipes, coffee cans, bolts, metal address numbers, old loaf pans and any other inflammable hardware they can spot.

Grandma Marlene Zimmerman, whose work is exhibited at the Skirball Cultural Center, has one menorah that didn’t make it onto the Dubin family display: Her replica of the Breed Street Shul in Boyle Heights is in President Bill Clinton’s museum in Arkansas. When Clinton was in office, his wife, Hillary, chose Zimmerman’s Breed Street Menorah for the National Treasures Collection, and in 1999 Hillary lit that menorah at the White House Chanukah reception.

The Promise Menorah

Isaac Bialik and Shawna Brynjegard were high school sweethearts and inseparable at UCLA in the early 1990s.

So when Bialik traveled to Israel in 1992 — without Brynjegard — he was thinking about her much of the time. When he spotted a blue-and-purple ceramic-pomegranate menorah made by the Israeli artist Avram Gofer in a shop on Ben-Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, he knew he had to get it for her.

He came home a couple of weeks later, and gave her the menorah on the first night of Chanukah.

“I told her that from now on we would use this every Chanukah together, and that we would never be apart again,” said Bialik, who works on communications for Deloitte, an auditing and financial consulting firm. Bialik didn’t officially propose to Brynjegard for another year, but today Isaac and Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik (or B2) still light that chanukiyah.

Isaac is himself a Judaic artist (www.nicejewishartist.com), and Shawna is a rabbi who performs lifecycle events for those not affiliated with synagogues. By now, their pomegranate menorah has been joined by others in their Santa Clarita-area home. Their daughters, Mira (9), Yael (7) and Aviva (5), have added their own signature pieces and the family has bought a few more menorahs. Each night of Chanukah they light about five menorahs from their ever-growing collection, and while the other menorahs rotate in and out of the ritual, the Brynjegard-Bialiks always light their “Promise Menorah” together.

The Uncle’s Menorah

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Sheldon Ginns doesn’t even know the name of the great-great-uncle who gave him his brass menorah more than 60 years ago. He was known simply as The Uncle, the first of the family to come to the United States from Berdichev, Ukraine, around 1900. The Uncle was in his late 90s when he died, and just before then he divvied up his belongings between his closest relatives (his only child had died). The Uncle gave his chanukiyah, which he had held onto through years of poverty, to Ginns’ grandfather, who immediately passed it along to Sheldon, then 8 years old.

The cast-brass menorah, whose edges are worn down form years of polishing, features two lions holding up a heart inscribed with the blessing for the candles, topped by an ornate crown.

Ginns, who grew up in Detroit and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., is a retired architect, and he remembers lighting the brass menorah every Chanukah and playing with it as a toy the rest of the year.

The menorah took on a place of honor in his own home, as he and his wife and two sons lit it every Chanukah.

Today, the brass menorah is the only family heirloom Ginns has. His grandfather was the eldest of 12 siblings, and the only one to come to the United States before World War II; no one else survived the Holocaust. His grandmother was the eldest of 10, and also the only survivor in her family. Both looked for their family for years.

When Ginns took the menorah to the Los Angeles-based Lower East Side Restoration Project to have it cleaned and repaired a few years ago, he learned that the menorah dated back to the 18th century and was probably from Poland. He also learned that the reason the menorah had two shamashes — candle cups set higher than the rest — was because it was also used weekly for Shabbat candles, a sign that the family who first owned it was poor and couldn’t afford both a chanukiyah and Shabbat candelabra.

He found out that the chanukiyah was originally an oil lamp and had been converted to hold candles. The Restoration Project restored it to its original state for Ginns.

He lights the menorah every two or three years, and he plans to pass it along to one of his five grandchildren some day to continue the tradition of the Ginns family menorah.

A Blessing by Any Other Name

When Judy Stern (not her real name) was a kid, her mother always made sure to pull out the menorah in December, and she recited the Hebrew blessing. Stern’s father wasn’t Jewish — they had a Christmas tree, too — and aside from that little menorah, not much else Jewish happened in their lives.

Then Stern landed at Hamilton High School near the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, and she made friends with some Jewish kids who invited her to the Jewish Student Union at school, and then to a youth group — where she made a disturbing discovery.

At a Chanukah celebration, the teens recited the blessing over the candles — and it was different from the one her mother had always said.

That evening, Stern realized that her mother, who herself grew up with little Jewish education, had been reciting the only blessing she knew — the Hamotzi, the blessing over bread.

Stern began saying the correct blessing, which she still does to this day. She married a rabbi (ironically, so did her brother), and has four kids. Now, every Chanukah, as they say the brachot over the candles, her mother is there to celebrate with them, and to say, Amen.

Blessings From Bullets

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Zane Buzby has restored many menorahs at her Lower East Side Restoration Project, but one of her favorites is what she calls the Palestine Menorah.

The owner, Rivka Greensteen, brought it to Buzby badly in need of repairs and restoration. The dented and dirty silver-plated brass rectangle was shaped like a wall of Jerusalem and engraved with lions and a Jerusalem scene. The candleholders fronting the wall needed care.

Greensteen told Buzby what she knew about the menorah. It had been brought from Russia to America by her grandfather, and was passed down to Greensteen’s father, and then to Greensteen. The family always used this menorah, and always had a family gathering on the fifth night of Chanukah — but they didn’t know why.

When Buzby got the menorah, she immediately recognized it as one from Palestine — pre-state Israel. The candle cups, she told Greensteen, were made from bullet casings. Greensteen put the rest together. Her grandfather’s brother was an early pioneer in Palestine, and must have sent the family the chanukiyah. He was killed in the 1930s in an Arab uprising.

This brother was the fifth son in his family, and it is probably no coincidence, Greensteen guessed, that it is his menorah that brings the family together each year on the fifth night of Chanukah.

Saying “Amen” to Life


When my husband and I put our 2-year-old to bed, we help him with the usual array of activities: changing into pajamas, reading a book, drinking milk, singing songs
and — most beloved to me — chanting the Shema and Ve’ahavta.

Each evening at the conclusion of the nighttime Shema, my son says something he reserves for this prayer and no other. Taking a breath and a pause from his bottle, he shouts out: “Amen to that!” and then goes back to drinking.

My son’s nightly affirmation informs my reading of Parshat Mishpatim this year. In this week’s Torah portion, the Children of Israel respond fervently to words of Torah, repeated by Moses: “All the people answered in one voice, saying, ‘All the things that Adonai has commanded, we will do!'” (Exodus 24:3).

Moses then puts the commandments in writing and reads them aloud, and the people confirm their commitment: “All that Adonai has spoken we will faithfully do” (Exodus 24:7).

It raises the question: How do we respond to God’s words and Torah’s laws? It’s hard to imagine contemporary Jews embracing Law and Covenant as our ancestors did. Most of us are too impatient to tolerate the repetition, too ambivalent for such unbridled enthusiasm. Unconditional, all-inclusive agreement may seem foolhardy to us. Do we really mean that “all Adonai has spoken, we will faithfully do”?

“We will faithfully do” is a translation of the famous Hebrew phrase na’aseh venishma, which could also be translated as: “we will do and obey” or “we will do and harken.” The verse is classically interpreted to mean: “first we will do or practice these commandments, and only then, thereby, we will come to understand them.” The root ‘sh.m.’ allows for all these renditions, because it can mean listen, harken, obey, do or understand.

“Na’aseh venishmah” — like “Amen to that!” — is a way of saying “yes!” to life. We are so used to saying, “yes, but …” that it might seem normal, wise or at least prudent to do so. This week’s parsha encourages us to cultivate radical agreement and enthusiasm. “Yes” to life and to God — no ifs, ands or buts. “Yes” to Torah, even if we don’t understand it all yet. “Yes” to wherever it leads us. Caveat-free covenant.

Some things — in fact, some of the most important things in life — cannot be fully understood before they are assented to. While you can select a partner wisely, you can never know what marriage will be like before you say, “I do.”

(Checklists and cost-benefit analyses are inadequate, if not irrelevant.) No amount of research or weekend babysitting can prepare you for what it means to have a child. These relationships, like our relationships with God or Torah, can’t be neatly mapped or easily explained; they must be experienced. Life’s biggest decisions are leaps of faith and, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s phrase, “leaps of action,” too. If you wait until you are completely ready, until you have all the knowledge and tools to “do” them, you will wait forever. Covenant — whether under the chuppah or at Mount Sinai — is not a single event or decision; it is ongoing discovery, awakening and growth. The journey starts with a committed “yes.”

Covenant, radical agreement, “na’aseh venishma,” “amen to that” — all these phrases mean “love without a net.” A profound and daring “yes” should not be offered lightly or blindly. The cause and stakes and partner must be worthy. When they are, unreserved commitment fosters not just love and generosity but also freedom and security. There is power in “yes.” Strength comes with and from this kind of commitment. Doors and possibilities open for “yes” that will never open for “maybe.”

It may feel safer to weigh your options than to measure your growth against a declared goal, but actually, quite quickly, it is less safe. Staying undecided saps you and distances you from your purpose. The prophet Elijah challenged the people of Israel, “How long will you straddle [or hobble between] two opinions?” (I Kings 18:21).

Imagine what we could do collectively with all the time and energy we now spend in ambivalence about holy causes. It would be nothing short of miraculous.
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, the Elders indeed experience a miracle as a result of their radical assent: “They saw the God of Israel and under His feet there was the likeness of sapphire pavement, like the very sky for purity…. They beheld God.” (Exodus 24:10-11).

Following this vision, Moses ascends the mountain to receive the tablets, the inscription of God’s words by God’s own hand. Only we, humanity, have the power to say “yes!” and “amen!” to that. Again this year, we are called. How shall we answer?


Rabbi Debra Orenstein, editor of “Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life” (Jewish Lights), is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana. More of her writings can be found at www.makom.org.