Jewish Museums chanukiot challenge fires up local artists

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Furniture designer Cheryl Renee Riley grew up in a Southern Baptist family. Despite those beginnings, her elegantly balanced wooden candelabrum, "Shofar Menorah," stands out in a show filled with show-stopping chanukiot.

"I am the kind of person who will immerse myself spiritually in concepts," says Riley, one of 125 American artists who created menorot for the display, "Light Interpretations: A Hanukah Menorah Invitational," which opens Sunday, Nov. 12 at the Jewish Museum San Francisco.

Before beginning her menorah, Riley carefully researched the history of Chanukah. The San Francisco designer hoped her hollow, boat-shaped menorah would not only communicate the "richness of old and cherished rituals" but also include some of the African influences that typically inspire her work.

"I like a challenge. I love to learn new things. I learned a lot of Jewish culture. That, to me, is the most exciting part of my job," says Riley.

That's just the combination of artistry, creative reinterpretation and education museum curator Susan Mall was hoping for when she began inviting artists to participate in the show.

Despite her own love of menorot (she has long been a private collector), Mall says she was overwhelmed by the artists' responses.

"I thought I'd invite 175 artists and get 50, which I thought would primarily be the Jewish ones. But the artists just responded. It struck a note," says Mall. "They were challenged by the concept. Many [of the 125 participants] told me about their own religious upbringing, and others were just intrigued by the symbol."

For artist Carl Dern, who is known for his work in steel, the lure of the exhibit was that it gave him a chance to express his ideas while remaining true to the structure of the symbol.

The artist fashioned eight tiny chair-shaped candleholders, with a delicate ladder as the shamash (helper candle). It is one of the most evocative menorot in the show.

The chairs, he says, "represent human presence. A chair can represent a person having left a place, or about to arrive. It can be expectation or absence. A ladder has the same feel. Is the person all the way up?"

Chairs and ladders are common metaphors in the work of the Stinson Beach artist who, this time, envisioned them through the prism of the Chanukah story.

"I immensely enjoyed making it. It gave me a format. The question is, what do [I] do within that format to express an idea, to carry my thoughts, my work into the process.

"What I thought was important was what the piece communicated from a person who is not Jewish. It's a communication between a non-Jew and the Jewish community. I like that," says Dern.

While the exhibit is filled with interpretations of the Jewish symbol shaped by other cultures, there are still a number of more traditional pieces.

San Francisco architect Stanley Saitowitz, who recently designed six 54-foot-high glass and steel towers as a Holocaust memorial in Boston, was raised Orthodox in Johannesburg, South Africa. His goal while creating a menorah was to stay within the framework of the Shulchan Arukh, the written code of Jewish law, which tells "what constitutes a kosher menorah."

"The traditional menorah is quite prescriptive. All candles must be of the same height, in a straight line and so on," says Saitowitz.

Working within those guidelines, which were stricter than those the Jewish Museum distributed to artists, Saitowitz's simple stainless steel menorah strives to express the Chanukah story in a new way.

"What was most striking for me was this miracle of continuous light for eight days. The idea of continuous light," he explains, is why all the branches in his menorah are connected.

"It's about continuity."