God is hard; stuff is not.
Throughout the vagaries of my connection to religion, I’ve never once had doubts about my connection to its material culture—the challah knives, washing cups, mezuzahs, etc., of Jewish life. Of this stuff, and it is stuff, none has been more alluring for me than our various candle holders. That these pieces occupy the particularly female realm of our religious universe is relevant, but that the point of these accoutrements is to hold fire is even more so. The Hebrew word shamayim—the heavens —is comprised of two words: aish, or fire, and mayim, which means water. As rabbi Shlomo Riskin, among others, has noted: “[While] fire has the ability to bring warmth, it can also devour and destroy. … [C]loud and fire—the lack of clarity expressed by a cloud and the inability to gaze directly into a flame—likewise express one of the deepest truths of the Jewish message: religion is not so much paradise as it is paradox. God demands fealty even in the face of agonizing questions and disturbing uncertainty.”
Sabbath candles certainly fit the bill, as they demand our weekly attention to the challenge of this uncertainty. But what of the chanukiah, the nine-armed fire-holder that represents, in addition to Judaism’s essential paradox, the assertion of a miracle—an alleged interruption into our earthly landscape by the Divine? And here we are, back at the original problem: God.
Ah, but we don’t need to be—and that is one of the enduring gifts of Jewish life. Take a look at the chanukiahs—the proper name for the menorahs used at Hanukkah—collected here, which show evidence not of God’s hand so much as of man’s: the seemingly eternal creative engagement of human beings with our history and tradition. Of these, my favorite is Candlesticks United by Reddish, a partnership of the Israeli designers Naama Steinbock and Idan Friedman. As Daniel Belasco of the Jewish Museum recently observed, the Reddish piece is part of a trend of repurposing regular or Sabbath candlesticks into menorahs. But in Candlesticks United, this trick moves beyond clever to poignant: Built out of orphaned Sabbath candles Steinbock and Friedman found at flea markets and vintage stores, it enables the Jewish past not simply to speak to the Jewish present, but to create it. It’s almost inspired enough to make us forget something perhaps more perplexing, more painfully out of reach, even than God: our own human history, and the fact of what our ancestors chose to, or were made to, leave behind.
Alana Newhouse is the editor-in-chief of Tablet Magazine.