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.

Living chuppah can serve as family heirloom


Imagine standing under a beautiful, hand-embroidered chuppah that 25 years earlier your parents stood under as they became husband and wife. That is the legacy Los Angeles artist Robin Van Zak hopes to create every time she designs a one-of-a-kind heirloom lace bridal canopy.

The idea of passing down wedding keepsakes is not new, but it’s not commonly associated with the ceremonial chuppah. While many brides preserve their wedding gowns with the hope of one day passing it down to their daughter, the chuppah is often tucked away and rarely seen again. A family chuppah provides the perfect opportunity to create a “living” memory that can be shared from generation to generation.

Most couples understand what the bridal canopy represents, but its origins are more literal than many may realize. The chuppah’s roots go back to talmudic times, when, as explained by author Sol Zim in the “Joy of the Jewish Wedding,” after the ceremony, the groom “brought his bride into a ‘chupa,’ special living quarters arranged for the couple in the home of the groom’s parents.” By the 14th century, as the expense associated with building a separate space for the couple became too costly, the contemporary ceremonial chuppah, representing the new home that the couple would share as husband and wife, was born.

Because its beginnings are based in a life-cycle event, a bridal canopy that is shared among relatives highlights the importance of family. The simplicity of its frame comprised of four poles, four open sides and a cloth covering on top draw the wedding guests in, while at the same time provide an element of privacy for the couple. It’s as if they are embraced and protected by those who stood under the canopy before them.

For Van Zak, the idea for a multigenerational chuppah was born when her sister announced she was getting married. She wanted to create something special for her, something that was personal and representative of their family, something that could be shared for generations to come.

“I focused on the chuppah, because I have seen so many made out of flowers that cost tens of thousands of dollars and are thrown away by the end of the night. I thought this was a perfect opportunity to blend traditional elements with a contemporary flair,” she said.

After the wedding, a cloth patch was sewn into a corner listing the couple’s name and wedding date. Since then, at least one more name and date has been added, and its designer takes pride in knowing more will be added in years to come.

Van Zak focuses on finding premium lace, creating delicate designs that evoke a sense of romance and warmth. Each creation takes days to complete and brings a level of romance and elegance to a wedding symbol steeped in tradition.

Chuppahs have the ability to alter the mood of the ceremony and claim a far greater role than many couples might realize.

“The chuppah is the centerpiece of the wedding ceremony,” said Debbie Geller, owner of Geller Events, a boutique wedding and event planning company. “The bulk of the wedding photographs are taken there, and more than any other element of the wedding, it demonstrates the tone of the couple itself, whether traditional, modern, simple or elaborate.”

Rabbi Stewart Vogel of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, who has officiated hundreds of weddings, speculates that “the people who take the time to create a personalized chuppah are probably people who are more likely to put more time and energy into their home — to recognize the importance of proactively creating the home that they want to create to reflect their values.”

Couples who are trying to decide if a living chuppah is right for them should take a tip from Van Zak herself, who uses inspiration as her guide in their creation.

“It’s when I see beautiful lace that I start the process,” she said. “I treat them as pieces of art; it’s my passion.”

What will inspire the couple as they stand there declaring their love and commitment? If it is finding comfort when looking up and knowing a piece of their love will be shared with their children and their children’s children, then a living chuppah is the perfect fit.

Allison Krumholz is a professional freelance writer who writes on a diversity of topics and has written for several publications, including Inside Weddings. She lives in Los Angeles.