In the 1990s, when I was working intensively on Israeli art projects, I frequently visited the Bertha Urdang Gallery in New York. Bertha was an English-born Israeli grandmother, tough and fiercely opinionated, who represented many of the leading contemporary artists of Israel. Her gallery in a once-majestic apartment building just off Madison Avenue was her home—literally. She slept on a fold-out couch in her office, and the other rooms of the apartment were given over to exhibition spaces. Bertha was not religious, though her passion for art and artists had the fervor of religion. I never saw anything overtly Jewish in her gallery, except one odd Hanukkah lamp that she kept on her desk.
Zelig Segal, Hanukkah Lamp, circa 1986, Copper alloy, cast, machined and silver-plated; two parts, Part A (with servant light socket): H. 1 3/8 x W. 10 3/16 x D. 1 3/8 in., Part B: H. 1 3/8 x W. 8 5/8 x D. 1 3/8 in., Gift of Stefanie and Douglas Kahn
The bars of Segal's Hanukkah Lamp are adjustable, accommodating another candle each day of the festival of lights.
This was no ordinary Hanukkah lamp. It had all the attributes of sculpture. It consisted of two heavy bars of silver-plated metal, each bar drilled along one edge with nine semi-circular holes. When aligned, the holes create sockets for nine candles—one candle for each of the eight days of the Hanukkah festival plus, separate from the rest, a servant candle with which to kindle the other lights. Of course Bertha cared little for the rituals and meaning of the holiday. What intrigued her was the lamp’s elegant minimalism, how the artist had taken the idea of a Hanukkah lamp, pared away all ornament, and reduced its form to the bare essentials. She would sometimes interrupt our conversation to demonstrate how the lamp worked, beginning with the bars fully extended, aligned to accommodate only one candle for the first night of the holiday. Then she would slide the bars for another candle, then another until all eight candles were lit on the last day. “Marvelous,” she whispered while her fingers toyed with the lamp. “Simplicity itself!”
The creator of this remarkable lamp was Zelig Segal, a highly regarded Israeli artist and designer and revered mentor to a younger generation of Judaica designers—including Sari Srulovitch and Iris Tutnauer, whose works are represented in the NCMA’s Judaic art collection. Raised in an Orthodox family, Segal informed his Judaic ritual objects with a deep understanding of Judaism and Jewish tradition. Asked about the meaning of his Hanukkah lamp, he wrote in an artist’s statement, "The two halves are in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple. When the Messiah comes it will become one unit.” However, what attracted me to this object was how it developed those ideas in a spare, eloquent design. Segal imagined the lamp with the precision and formal clarity of an architect or engineer.
Bertha passed away just as I was assuming the role as curator for the NCMA’s Judaic Art Gallery. Ever since I have been looking for one of Zelig Segal’s Hanukkah lamps. (Bertha’s lamp could not be found.) The artist never produced very many lamps of this design. Though the Jewish Museum in New York and the Israel Museum have examples in their collections, the lamps are exceptionally rare.
A few years ago, I located one of Segal’s Hanukkah lamps in an antiques gallery in Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the gallery owner was a devoted collector of Segal’s work and refused to part with the lamp. Every now and then I would email him in the hope he had changed his mind. Finally, last year he wrote back saying that he had recently acquired a second Segal Hanukkah lamp and would now be willing to sell one. By coincidence, I had already planned a visit to Israel in October 2017, so I stopped by the gallery and inspected the lamp. Satisfied, we struck a deal. Fortunately, donors soon stepped forward to underwrite the purchase: thank you, Stefanie and Doug Kahn! Over this past summer we installed the lamp in the gallery, where it shares a case with older and more ornate Hanukkah lamps. Now every time I pass by the case, I look at Zelig Segal’s lamp, fitted with white candles, and I hear Bertha exclaim in her plummy English accent, “Marvelous. Simplicity itself!”