Hanukkah Lamp

Just in time for Hanukkah … and Thanksgiving, we have installed in the Judaic Art Gallery a new and imposing acquisition: a 5-foot-high Standing Hanukkah Lamp for a Synagogue, made in Eastern Europe, probably western Ukraine or Poland. It replaces a similar lamp that has been loan to us from New York’s Jewish Museum.
Eastern European, Standing Hanukkah Lamp for a Synagogue, 18th–19th century, copper alloy: cast, machine-turned, engraved, punched, partly gilded (eagle), Gift of Thomas G. and Louise J. Coffey in memory of H. Arthur Sandman

Our lamp was acquired last April at the Sotheby’s auction of the celebrated Judaica Collection of Michael and Judy Steinhardt. As described in an earlier post, we were able to secure enough pledges of support from generous patrons to compete—and compete aggressively—for a number of the principal lots in the sale. In the end we were successful in acquiring three of the most important pieces in the Steinhardt collection, including this large Hanukkah lamp.

Before the Second World War, there were thousands of Jewish synagogues in cities, towns, and villages across Eastern Europe. A feature of many of these often-rustic houses of worship was a large Hanukkah lamp, placed near the front of the sanctuary, close to the Ark. Often made of copper alloy, such lamps typically took the distinctive form of a menorah, the branched candelabrum of the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem. (The Temple Menorah had six branches, but Hanukkah lamps add two more to accommodate the eight lights required for observance of the holiday, plus an additional server light.) The decorative branches of the lamp with alternating blossoms and buds follow the description of the biblical menorah given in Exodus 25:31–40. An interesting, nonbiblical feature of this lamp are the brackets of stylized flowers that encircle the central shaft.

The base of our lamp has an inscription declaring that “this [lamp] is a donation of Reb Fievel and his wife Esther Yenma, daughter of Reb Zinvel, to the Holy Society Hesed ve-Ernet [5]531 (1771).” The crowned eagle surmounting the lamp is probably a later addition. These lamps often carried royal or imperial emblems as expressions of loyalty.  This eagle, perhaps indicative of Polish or Prussian suzerainty, may have replaced an older emblem—a double-headed Russian or Austrian eagle?—when the allegiance of the community changed with the ever-shifting political boundaries. The eagle adds yet another story to a much-storied object.

These synagogue lamps were treasured by the local Jewish communities. Unfortunately, as potent symbols of the Jewish faith and identity, they were ready targets for the Nazis and their anti-Semitic allies. Few examples of this once-ubiquitous ceremonial object survived the war and Holocaust.

So, in this season of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, we have much to be thankful for.

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