A stainless steel, sterling silver and gold chanukkiah designed by San Francisco artist Abrasha is now part of the Smithsonian's collection.
A stainless steel, sterling silver and gold chanukkiah designed by San Francisco artist Abrasha is now part of the Smithsonian's collection.

Menorah Radiance: S.F. artists chanukiah lighting up the Smithsonian

Abrasha’s downtown San Francisco studio can only be described as controlled chaos — a place where power drills and a wall hanging that reads “Sample everything in life except incest and folk dancing” meet neat files tabbed “Art Spiegelman,” “prime numbers” and “menorah.”

The menorah file is particularly thick, crammed with sketches, computer renderings, photocopied pages of the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) and a letter from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington accepting Abrasha’s work.

Earlier this year the Dutch-born jeweler’s stainless steel, sterling silver and 24-karat gold chanukiah was purchased by the Renwick Gallery of the National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

After submitting the piece to the Renwick, Abrasha (who is known by his first name only) received a simple message from the museum’s curator Kenneth Trapp, former curator of decorative arts at the Oakland Museum:

“It’s magnificent. I want it.”

Several months later the chanukiah arrived in Washington. It was lit twice — once upon its presentation to the Renwick Alliance and again when it was photographed for museum archives.

“It probably won’t be lit again because each time it is, it has to be professionally cleaned. But it should be lit — with all its reverence to service and to faith,” Trapp said. “It’s a beautiful object and a beautiful part of ritual.”

More than 600 pieces occupy space at the Renwick, a museum that specializes in 20th century arts and crafts. A small number of pieces, only about a dozen, are bought each year, Abrasha’s chanukiah among them. The rest are donated or transferred from other museums.

The Smithsonian does not catalog work by artists’ religious or cultural affiliation, so it’s unclear exactly how many pieces of Jewish art the museum holds. But Smithsonian officials agree that only a few Jewish artists are represented. Among them are Sidney Hutter of Massachusetts, Ida Kohlmeyer of Louisiana, Steven Weinberg of Rhode Island and Paula Colton Winokur of Pennsylvania.

Like Abrasha, each of those artists was represented in last year’s “Light Interpretations: A Hanukah Menorah Invitational” at The Jewish Museum San Francisco.

The chanukiah at the Renwick — constructed of steel oil cups and a moveable base — isn’t Abrasha’s first. When he was a child living in Holland, Abrasha attached nine bottlecaps to a piece of wood.

“It was ugly as hell but it was mine,” he recalled.

Many years later, after coming to the United States in 1977, he fashioned a chanukiah of wood and brass. He lit household emergency candles instead of the traditional multicolored American Chanukah ones sold in boxes for about $2.

“I’m a purist. I hate those twisty things. They look like overgrown birthday candles,” Abrasha said.

The wood-and-brass menorah “wasn’t so bad looking,” he added. “But the heat it generated melted the candles together.”

Without the invitation to participate in the Jewish Museum’s menorah exhibition, Abrasha probably wouldn’t have designed another chanukiah. And the Smithsonian would remain a dream destination for Abrasha.

But when the offer arrived, Abrasha took his task seriously. He turned to the original source — the Shulchan Aruch — to determine the requirements for a proper chanukiah.

According to the Jewish code, all oils are valid for use but olive is preferred. Abrasha used olive oil. All wicks are permitted but cotton is preferred. Abrasha ordered a slew of different sorts from a Brooklyn, N.Y., supply house.

Silver is the material of choice. Abrasha’s is stainless steel with silver rods and gold bolts.

Also, the lights must be placed in an even row with sufficient space between them so the flames don’t merge and flare up like a torch. The candles must be large enough to burn for half an hour.

“My menorah is about function,” Abrasha said.

But Trapp described it as “beautiful, elegant and simple.”

When the steel cups are filled with virgin olive oil and lit, “the greenish flames dancing above seem to be separate, alive with color and activity,” Trapp said. “The wicks fall but the flames are vertical. It presents the most elegant and beautiful design.”

Abrasha is known locally for his jewelry designs, fluid pieces that often resemble bits of hardware. Creating Judaica is far less profitable than making jewelry, he said. He refused to disclose the selling price of his chanukiah but said, “Per hour, a lawyer gets more.”

Nonetheless, Abrasha labored more than 300 hours on the chanukiah.

Such endeavors allow this self-described assimilated grandson of a Polish rabbi “to feel connected to my people.”

So does carrying a copy of the Torah on microfilm in his leather briefcase, as does working on a small number of projects he refers to as “occupational therapy.”

Tacked to the clean white walls of his studio, near photos of wife Maria and children Dimitri and Ruben, are two small frames. Each contains a small metal figure behind gold bars resembling those in a jail cell. Behind one figure is a swastika; behind the other is the Hebrew letter aleph. One is untitled. The other is called “The past is ever-present. It is my prison.”

“This is for me. It’s not to sell,” Abrasha said of those works. “It’s more fun making jewelry. This is not fun stuff.”

The son of Holocaust survivors, Abrasha began working on those darker pieces after participating in therapy groups for survivors’ children at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco.

The group sessions provided him with a place to explore his feelings about his mother’s hiding and the moniker “the fixer,” which his father acquired while interned at an Auschwitz satellite camp.

The sessions also helped him understand his own decision to study metalsmithing in Germany while in his 20s.

“I always thought my time in Germany was about jewelry, not Germans. I was wrong,” he said. “I had to physically get to Germany and try to find some remnants of Judaism there. But Germany is Judenrein” — without Jews.

“The Germans are very weird. They love uniforms,” he said, noting the image of German prediliction for order. “But they also turned me into a good goldsmith. My jewelry is very precise.”