Which Chanukah candles are the best burn for your buck

We’ve come a long way from the days when buying Chanukah candles meant one thing: “the cheapies.”

This is how Jerry Derblich owner of Berkeley’s Afikomen Judaica store refers to the box of 44 all-white candles, similar to birthday-cake candles, which are still available for a buck just about anywhere.

But in Judaica shops around the Bay Area, one can find hand-dipped candles from Israel, dripless rainbow candles, hand-rolled beeswax candles …

Derblich recalls no such assortment from his boyhood days.

“The variety today is phenomenal. People love it!” Derblich says.

Which ones offer the best burn for a buck, or in this case, which is the best wick and wax for the won? (That’s South Korean currency.)

Candle-mongers say that their bestsellers every season are the Israeli-made candles such as Safed. Those candles are sold as traditionally dipped candles in packets of 45 in rainbow colors, and Derblich says “burn for more than one hour.”

For under $10, you can get a box of 45 Israeli-made candles. Safed Candles are $6 per box, A.J.I. Judaica are $8 per box. Both fit perfectly in a traditional menorah.

Asked why some candles come in boxes of 44, while others come in boxes of 45, Derblich shrugs his shoulders. But a customer who overhears the conversation chimes in: “It’s in case you’re spastic and you break one!”

The more expensive Israeli-made candles (more than $10 per box) are multicolored with unique swirling designs. However, the bottom ends of these candles are a bit bigger than your cheaper Chanukah candle, and a bit tricky to fit into a regular menorah.

During a candle-burning test fest, I left the room for a minute — I know, very dangerous — and the oversized candle went crooked and fell right out of the menorah.

Derblich says that he has just the solution for a wobbly candle. A company called Kitchens makes a candle adhesive, which never hardens and washes right off.

However, if you want candles made in Israel — versus, say, China — you’d better hit your local Judaica store fast.

“It’s not so easy to get candles from Israel anymore.” Derblich says, explaining that the New York distributors aren’t as reliable these days. “Fifteen years ago, all the candles were from Israel.”

Odette Blachman, of Congregation Beth El’s gift shop in Berkeley, agrees: “Mostly people have really reacted to the made-in-China candles. They really prefer made-in-Israel.”

In fact, Israeli candles also seem to light the easiest and burn the longest — for just about an hour — compared to “the cheapies” which last just 20 minutes.

And here’s a trick! An Israeli friend who was visiting during one of my candle-burning sessions asked, “Did you put them in the freezer first?”

Put the candles in the freezer? It worked quite well. After a night in the freezer, all the candles burned a bit longer. (Those Israelis!)

If you’re looking for the ultimate package deal in Chanukah candles, you can buy a box of 180 candles (Rite Lite, $16.95) with “lead free wicks.”

Lead was once a common ingredient in the chemical solution used to make wicks, according to the Whole Foods Web site.

“Though now banned in many countries, lead may still be found in low-quality imported candles, particularly those from some Asian countries. Lead wicks emit potentially dangerous levels of lead into the air,” according to the site.

Most of today’s candles are made with paraffin, not beeswax, which smell scrumptious and add to an all-natural atmosphere.

Beeswax candles should be refrigerated for ideal burning, but have patience while you light them because it might take a few tries. Most stores sell them in rainbow or blue-and-white colors.

On the high end of specialty Chanukah candles, since 1968, artist James Evans of Waxen Candles in Pennsylvania has been creating one-of-a-kind hand-dipped candles in rainbow colors ($19/bag).

If you’re looking for unique candles, Eva-Lynne Leibman of San Francisco’s Dayenu urges you to hurry over. “One of my customers right here is saying, ‘Come quick, because if you wait until the last minute, you’ll end up with a plain one!'”

So, why is there such variety in Chanukah candles? Today most families are looking for a variety of candles because they have a variety of menorahs, according to Shirley Bob, co-owner of bob and bob in Palo Alto.

“Each member of the family often has his or her own menorah, and each member gets a box,” Bob says. “Also, many people like to match the candle with the décor in their homes.”

But don’t fret. If you’re sentimental or like to stick to what you know best, “the cheapies” are still sold at all of your local Judaica stores, as well as supermarkets. They light easily, but they’re very drippy. And you’re not likely to get much expert advice from the supermarkets.

When I called my local Safeway to ask what kind of Chanukah candles they carry, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi. Can you please tell me which brand of Chanukah candles you carry?”

Safeway: “Cupcake candles?”

Me: “No, the little candles that you put on a Menorah.”

Safeway: “A what? Hold on a second.”

After a few minutes, however, we’re on the same page. Yes, Safeway carries “the cheapies,” too.

Where you can buy candles

Some of the Bay Area Judaica stores

that carry candles are:

Afikomen 3042 Claremont Ave., Berkeley. 510-655-1977, www.afikomen.com.

Dayenu 3220 California St., San Francisco, 415-563-6563.

Bob and Bob 151 Forest Avenue, Palo Alto, 650-329-9050.

Alef Bet Judaica 14103D Winchester Blvd., Los Gatos, 408-370-1818.

Meshek 1838 Tice Boulevard Suite 2E, Walnut Creek