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CHANUKAH FEATURE Menorah madness takes off; kitschy kids’ styles proliferate

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NEW YORK, Dec. 8 (JTA) — How many ways can Mickey Mouse celebrate Chanukah? Five different Mickey menorahs, licensed from Disney, are now available to answer that question. If you’re more into Winnie-the-Pooh, there are two colorful menorahs displaying the whole gang from the Hundred Acre Wood to choose between. And the latest this year in kids’ character menorahs is the irrepressible Curious George. It’s menorah madness time — and the last couple of years have witnessed an explosion of styles made of almost every conceivable material. Two decades ago, there wasn’t much available beyond a traditional eight- branched candelabra made in brass, say those who sell Judaica. Today menorahs are designed for children and adults, as well as afficionados of a wide variety of hobbies. Prices range from around $30 to $1,500 — and more. (For a full listing of stores carrying menorahs and other holiday accoutrements, click here.) Bloomingdales, which will be carrying Chanukah menorahs in its 22 stores coast to coast, is orienting its merchandise this year to kids, said Gabrielle Schein, the buyer in charge of holiday merchandise. Everything from ballerinas to baseballs, dancing dreidels to bicycles, can be found on child-oriented menorahs. And the new menorahs are not just for kids. Mah-jongg your bag? There’s a menorah crafted of the game’s tiles. If animals are your attraction, choose between several different renditions of Noah’s Ark menorahs. Just friendly with felines, you say? Cats shown cavorting in front of candles are available on one menorah, as is a rustic moosehead cut out of metal whose antlers each hold up one of the holiday’s ritual candles. If you’re into gazing at tiny replicas of the synagogues of Jerusalem, Eastern Europe or the Lower East Side, each is available on its own menorah this year — as is one with tiny Statues of Liberty, each lady holding aloft a Chanukah candle in place of her famous flame. Klezmer musicians crowd together on another menorah, and this, along with others, is available with a music-box component which plays the Chanukah classic “Maoz Tsur,” or “Rock of Ages.” Top brands in tableware are also extending their lines into Chanukah. Waterford offers an elegant crystal candleholder to mark Chanukah’s eight nights. Limoges porcelain has produced delicately hand-painted dreidels. The artistic approach to menorahs is also booming. Craftspeople — not all of them Jewish — who have been successful in many media have branched out into the menorah market. Whether your taste runs to fused art glass, anodized aluminum or hand-painted ceramic, there’s a funky menorah available to collect. “Not a day goes by that I don’t get a call from an artist who wants to show me something new,” said Claire Schneider, manager of the Treasures of Judaica store at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. Adam Berkowitz is a young designer who describes himself as an “industrial sculptor.” He creates cabinets, chairs and wall coverings out of environmentally sound materials. This year, for the first time, he designed a menorah. Crafted from
brushed aluminum, with rounded curves, it fits together like a sophisticated puzzle. “An appreciation for new materials in Jewish objects is trickling down from the secular design world,” said Berkowitz while standing in his drawing- and prototype-filled Brooklyn studio as African music played in the background. “I’m trying to interest my generation and younger people in Judaica,” said Berkowitz, 29. “Just seeing what’s happening to my friends and the rest of the Jewish community with intermarriage, I feel that in some way by having Judaica with a certain edge and freshness it might spark the interest of someone who otherwise might not” light a menorah. The number of outlets selling menorahs has also expanded in recent years. Once purchased most often in mom-and-pop Judaica stores, menorahs are now also sold in chic galleries and the largest national chains, from Lord & Taylor to Bed, Bath & Beyond. Even the Home Shopping Network has gotten on board. Catalogs — those selling only Jewish ritual objects and crafts, along with those who fit in a menorah or other Chanukah object next to their Christmas selections — have proliferated as well, both on paper and on the World Wide Web. Not all of the newfangled menorahs are kosher, warned some retailers. The moose menorah, which has antlers at different levels, does not meet the requirement for menorahs: that all of its eight candles stand at the same height so that the shamash, which is used for lighting the other candles, is the only elevated flame. But not all characters are acceptable for the trendy menorah merchandising. Philip Lax, owner of Aviv Judaica Imports, one of the country’s largest distributors of Chanukah goods, licensed the right to put Mickey, Winnie-the- Pooh and Curious George on menorahs. He has been approached by the creators of some characters, including Power Rangers and Superman, to render their characters on menorahs but turned them down, Lax said in an interview in his bustling warehouse in Brooklyn. Lax, who is Orthodox and permits his own children to use only the oil-and-wick menorahs preferred by the fervently Orthodox community, said that he wouldn’t produce a menorah with violent or unpleasant characters. “It has to be ‘geshmakt,’ ” said Lax, using the Yiddish term for enjoyable, of his kids’ designs. “It has to have a ‘ta’am,’ ” or appropriate flavor, he said. As workers packed orders full of menorahs, musical Chanukah snow globes and Winnie-the-Pooh Chanukah painted dreidels and glitter cups, Lax said two types of people buy the “kitschy” menorahs — collectors and those “who want a flavor of something Jewish or are trying to get their Jewish child to participate.” But in the experience of one major retailer, most people “choose Noah’s arks, or choo-choo trains for kids, which can be charming. When they bring in the real secular stuff, it’s almost like they forget the meaning of the holiday,” said Daniel Levine, whose Manhattan store, J. Levine Judaica, carries about 300 different menorah styles. As far as some people are concerned, the Disneyfication of Chanukah is taking things a few steps too far. “Since when are Mickey and Winnie Jewish?” asked Shari Boraz, proprietor of Galerie Robin Fine Judaica in Hanover, N.H., which focuses on more artistic menorahs in both its traditional and on-line catalogues. For many menorah mavens, the tried-and-true works well. “With all the hoopla, the traditional still sells,” said Terry Heller, manager of a large Judaica store at Temple Emanuel in Denver, and proprietor of an online catalogue, Artistic Judaic Promotions. Even with all of the alternatives available today, “some people want it to look like a menorah should,” she said.

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