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Festival of Lights exhibit to feature menorahs from 1st century BCE to today
A selection of menorahs from "Festival of Lights."

Festival of Lights exhibit to feature menorahs from 1st century BCE to today

A conversation with exhibition lender Rabbi Howard Berman.

November 29, 2021 at 12:00pm

As a new resident of the Miami area, Rabbi Howard Berman is forming new relationships within the local community. One is a newly developed personal relationship with the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, where pieces from his vast collection of menorahs will be on display in “Festival of Lights,” an exhibit featuring more than 50 of these prized artifacts, which launches on Dec. 5.

Menorahs (also known as hanukkiahs) are lit during the eight-day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah. Eight of the nine branches hold lights (candles or oil lamps) that symbolize the eight nights of the holiday; on each night, one more light is lit than the previous night, until on the final night all eight branches are ignited. The ninth branch holds a candle, called the shamash ("helper" or "servant"), which is used to light the other eight.

Menorahs in Berman's collection hail from the 1st century BCE to today. The exhibit gives visitors a comprehensive look at the different styles and materials of menorahs that Berman has sourced from around the world. 

Q. What is a Festival of Lights?

A. Festival of Lights is one of the descriptive titles of Hanukkah that has been used throughout history. It’s meant to refer to the kindling of the lights throughout the eight days of the holiday.

It reflects a very important part of the overarching meaning of Hanukkah, which links to many other religions’ celebrations of the Winter Solstice. A very important part of the background of the holiday reflects the idea of celebrating light in the midst of darkness and the universal human need for light and warmth in the midst of the darkest, coldest days of the year.

Q. Tell us a little bit about the history of the menorah.

A. The way the menorah has developed as an object over the centuries is fascinating. Menorah design becomes a wonderful vehicle for the study of Jewish history around the world. It didn't have a standard design dictated by Jewish law, so there are many different designs and styles. The defining characteristic of a Hanukkah menorah is eight lights in a row, with a ninth lamp off to the side or above, separated from the other eight. The ninth lamp is called a shamash or shammas a “servator,” and it symbolically differentiates the eight holy flames from other, mundane light sources.

Q. What are some of the pieces that will be on display at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU?

A. There are mostly contemporary menorahs in this collection with 20 countries represented. Some antique artifacts include an 18th-century Italian menorah, 19th-century German designs and 20th century, pre-holocaust designs like Art Deco German menorahs from the ’20s and ’30s, before the rise of Hitler. There’s a 1st-century oil lamp from just after the Hanukkah period when the earliest form of the menorah was simply eight small oil lamps lined up one by one for each of the 8 nights.

Q. Are there antique American menorahs in the collection?

A. There's a historic piece that will be on display — a colonial American menorah, which is part of a small grouping of the only known colonial American menorahs that survived that time. These are hand-beaten coppered and/or tin candlesticks based on the Dutch style of menorahs because the Jews of colonial New York were primarily of Dutch descent. The one on display dates from about 1750— right before the American Revolution. 

Q. Tell us more about some of the European menorahs on display?

A. British menorahs are typically very formal silver candelabras made by area silversmiths, and part of a more restrained decor. The menorah itself was designed as a fine work of silversmith or goldsmith. And that was the same in Germany and in France.

Q. Can you tell me about the pre-Holocaust, European menorahs in this group?

A. Some of the menorahs survived the holocaust with families fleeing Europe pre and during the holocaust. It’s always devastating to go into an antique shop or to a flea market in Europe and see a menorah or another Jewish religious object because usually, that object is there because the family is gone and had to flee or were taken.  I try to buy them as often as possible. These become a very living memorial to the families that originally owned them.

Q. When did menorahs become more commercialized?

A. As a kid, Hanukkah was always my favorite holiday and our family did it very big in the way. Many American Jews began celebrating in the post-war period as part of the coming of age of American Jews as becoming part of a greater American society. That is about the time when Hanukkah became a more major observance and a way in which Jews were searching for a Jewish experience and Jewish expression during the holiday season. 

The first generation of commercial Hanukkah decorations that were widely sold and made available began to emerge in the 1950s. That was also the time when the first electric menorahs were marketed and that was very much a reflection of the way in which the holiday was being influenced by the Christmas aesthetic and lit with orange Christmas lights. Jewish Americans began displaying electric menorahs in their windows; this custom is a mainly American one. My family’s first electric menorahs will be on display in the exhibition.

Q. There will be some very playful menorahs for children on display. Can you tell me more about them?

A. Nowadays, there are all kinds of menorahs for kids: trains, ballerinas, sports…. It’s distinctively American and has been seen a little bit in Israel as well, but nowhere else. Child-oriented menorahs will be on display in the exhibition, including two Noah’s Arc menorahs. One of which I was given at the age of 5. I've lit it every year for 50 years. 

Q. Can you speak to the concept of the menorah being an object of art and a gift?

A. The menorah is an art object. Many people in the field of sculpture and metalwork create menorahs. They are increasingly being seen more and more as an art piece not just as a religious article. A menorah might be gifted to a bride and groom, or someone who has a new home in America.


Rabbi Berman moved to Miami from Boston, where he served as a Rabbi in the Back Bay at Central Reform Temple. After he retired, Rabbi Berman founded the Shalom Collaborative, a nationally-based, virtual Jewish Spiritual Community.

“Festival of Lights” will be on display from Dec. 5 to Feb. 20, 2022.