Lights, camera, menorah

Most of the things small children tote to school — lunch boxes, toy robots, dead birds — do not make for interesting documentary fare.

Atara Moalem has changed that.

The Jewish studies teacher at Palo Alto’s Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School asked her young students to bring the family menorah to class. And the results were compelling enough that Moalem soon began lugging a camcorder to work, then visiting family homes and, before too long, completing a half-hour documentary she calls “The Light of the Menorah.”

The Israeli-born teacher soaked up the kids’ stories about clay menorahs, oil-burning menorahs, antique menorahs and Mickey Mouse menorahs. She has since given her film to the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education to be used as a teaching tool, and even sold copies to more than a handful of South Peninsula families.

Moalem was bitten with the filmmaking bug shortly after she and her husband, Yoel, arrived in America in 1996. She has been known to dance a bit, but her husband is a serious Israeli folk dancer, and soon she was following him from festival to festival, camera in tow.

“It became a fun film. Since then I have had a passion to do that,” she said in her lilting Middle Eastern accent.

Filmmaking “came to be a side job. I am a teacher, so I want to teach with it. You can be creative and artistic and still tell so much.”

When working on “The Light of the Menorah,” Moalem practically “built a community around this film” by visiting so many homes.

She talked with families about their Polish-made menorahs that survived the Holocaust, about handmade artistic menorahs or even giant menorahs meant to be mounted in the front yard.

One of her favorites is owned by Abe Sofaer, the Hoover Institute fellow and former U.S. Mideast negotiator, and his wife, Miriam. Their Indian-made chanukiah is shaped like a Star of David and contains nine olive oil-filled cups.

Another of Moalem’s personal favorites belongs to Laura Lauder of Atherton. The Jerusalem stone base and metal spires are a symbolic tip of the cap to the Eternal City, which “is so basic in the ground, so old, but its spirit rises up to the sky.”

Lauder saw the menorah near the Knesset building in Jerusalem and bought it on the spot. It was not the most convenient purchase, as she had to carry it in her arms throughout her trip in Israel, Egypt and then on the flight home.

Since she completed her menorah film, Moalem has made several “bar mitzvah movies — how I prepare kids for their bar mitzvahs and go into a history of their families and all of the conversations kids have about Judaism.” She’s also made a short film about Shabbat and is working on one tying together Gideon Hausner’s annual Kabbalat Torah festival with footage of Israel’s desert vegetation.

All of the films are meant to be teaching tools, though Moalem can’t hide her pleasure that people have sought out and purchased copies.

“That’s very flattering,” she said with a laugh. “I’m happy. I love doing this.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.