Artists liberate menorot, illuminating traditional forms with new visions

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What's over 4 feet tall, with a knife-block head, a circuitboard body, salad-bowl hooves and a red nose that lights up when plugged in?

A mixed-media interpretation of a moose, of course.

But it's also a functioning menorah.

Artist Liz Mamorsky's "Maccabee Moose Menorah" — which the San Francisco artist dedicates to "Moosianic hope" — is one of 125 pieces in the Jewish Museum San Francisco's exhibit "Light Interpretations: A Hanukah Menorah Invitational," which runs from Nov. 12 to Dec. 25. Chanukah begins Dec. 17.

This exhibit demonstrates that, like the real-life moose, the 2,000-year-old tradition of lighting Chanukah candles has defied extinction.

Contributors, only about half of whom are Jewish, include many of the nation's top architects, designers, metalsmiths, painters, sculptors and furniture designers.

Their menorot range from several inches high to several feet, from clay to marble to machine parts. They run from flashy to subdued, from cheeky to somber.

The only thing these pieces have in common is that they all follow guidelines the museum issued last spring; All are working menorot with eight candles and a shamash, a helper candle.

"This show is going to redefine the word `eclectic,'" says museum director Linda Steinberg.

Proceeds from the menorot, which are for sale and start at $350, will be split between the artists and the museum.

Many of the most colorful works, such as Mamorsky's moose, approach the ancient symbol with an elbow to the ribs:

New York artist Neil Goldberg created an ode to Catskill comedians. His menorah, "Shecky III," features a row of candleholders adorned with framed photos of Jewish comedians such as the work's namesake, Shecky Greene. Festooning the base of each branch is a bow tie, befitting the borscht-belt motif.

While some of the menorot wink at us, others tell a story, imbuing the traditional holiday candles with a dose of magnetic modern imagery:

Oakland artist Sarah Levine presents a small metal suitcase, full of rocks. A craggy tree limb reaches out of the suitcase, with candleholders set along its branches.

Another piece in the exhibit — by Stan Peterson — looks almost like the menorah that sat on your grandma's shelf, except for the sculpted monkey sitting between two of the candleholders.

Steinberg explains that inviting artists to reinterpret the menorah helps further the museum's mission of revitalizing Jewish life.

"People talk about Jewish continuity — well, this is a perfect example. You take Jewish ideas and show how contemporary they are. This is a perfect example of taking old ideas and showing how they are beautiful, profound, relevant. That's why the artist is so important in Jewish life," she says.

Sometimes called the "festival of freedom," Chanukah seems the perfect time for artists to express their own creative license.

The holiday commemorates the first fight for religious freedom recorded in Jewish history: In 169 BCE, a group of Jews led by Judah Maccabee rebelled against the Syrian King Antiochus, who wanted all his subjects to adopt the Greek religion. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem victorious, they rededicated the Temple by lighting its great Menorah. The Jews only had enough oil for only one day but it lasted eight, which is considered the miracle of Chanukah.

While many of the artists' chanukiot are thought-provoking or whimsical variations on the Chanukah theme, others shine for their sheer aesthetic beauty.

One of the most stunning works is by Dale Chihuly of Seattle, one of the country's best-known glass artists. In conjunction with Lino Tagliapietro, Chihuly created a rounded, red and black menorah shaped like a tropical flower whose tangled petals curl in upon themselves. At $30,000 it is also the most expensive menorah in the exhibit.

Weaver Laurie Gross — one of many artists to leave their usual medium behind for the Jewish museum's exhibit — also worked with glass, shaping a clear candleholder with 14-karat gold strands woven inside the translucent branches.

San Francisco artist Vernon Theiss combined classical lines with a modern message. His menorah, semicircular like a Greek amphitheater, is tipped with a pink triangle, a symbol of gay pride.

It is "dedicated to the gay Jewish community," says Theiss, who adorned the form with smooth, headless human shapes.

Theiss, a jewelry designer, says the menorah is his first Jewish piece. Like many of the other non-Jewish artists in the show, he carefully researched the history of the menorah.

"I'm 10 percent Jewish," Theiss says. "Everyone yearns to touch base with their identity. Knowing your roots is really important."

Linda Steinberg would agree.

For her, inviting artists from divergent backgrounds to create menorot helps craft a vital Jewish future as they illuminate the past in fresh ways. She says the key agents in the process are the artists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who have attached their wildly varying personalities to the ancient symbol, giving birth to 125 innovative versions.

"They've been inspired by us," Steinberg says, "and us by them."