The Secrets Of A Ukrainian Menorah


The 19th-century menorah in my grandmother’s house in Ukraine was intricately made with delicately laced silver flowers and oval medallions on both sides that bore Hebrew writing. Instead of a shamash, the candle used to light the other candles, a small silver vessel hung from the top corner from which oil was poured into the candleholders. Some parts, including the silver curved legs, the tiny lids to the oil cups and a beautiful stone in the middle, were unfortunately lost with time.

In 1988, after my grandmother died, my mother inherited the menorah; in 1995, she brought our treasure to the United States, hidden in the depths of her luggage; several years later my mother gave the menorah to me. My family lit it on Chanukah for several years, but with each passing year, it was getting more fragile, and I switched to a simple, contemporary menorah bought in the United States, putting our family treasure on display.

During the last two years, interested in our family history, I wanted to find confirmation of the amazing stories that I have heard about my grandparents, descendants of renowned tzaddikim. I hired researchers in Ukraine, and they were able to find many archival documents that trace our family roots back 10 generations.

One day, while working at home with the documents, I looked at the menorah and realized that I didn’t know how to translate the Hebrew writing on its medallions. I sent pictures of them to a friend, an ethnographer from Germany, who told me the writing shows that the menorah belonged to Rabbi Levi Itzhak, son of a renowned rabbi; it had the abbreviation of Rabbi Itzhak’s name.

A few months later, before Rosh HaShanah, I decided that it was time to prepare the menorah for the upcoming holidays. I read all the instructions on how to polish and restore silver, and started to soak the menorah in boiling water with aluminum foil and baking soda. Soon, as I began to rinse the menorah, I saw that one of the candleholders had come loose and fallen off.

I started to make plans to take it for repairs, when, under close inspection I noticed that the candleholder had a tiny screw at the bottom. I piled up several pairs of magnifying reading glasses and realized that the bottom of the screw had a number, as did the base of the menorah. Hot water had melted the years of oil and candles that had glued it all together. I saw that candleholder had not broken but merely become unscrewed. The candleholders were numbered from 1 to 8, and the base was numbered as well from 1 to 8, but they weren’t assembled in the proper order.

One by one, I unscrewed each candleholder and scrubbed it. My husband’s numismatic skills became very useful — at the base of each candleholder was a silver coin, from three countries: Russia, Austria-Hungary and Romania. The oldest coin was from 1859; the newest, from 1893.

The night before Chanukah, I mailed my story about the menorah to a relative, Yitz Twersky, a pioneer in integrating archival research with Y-DNA family history research. When I woke up the next day, I had an email from him. It had just one sentence: “It’s a Shemira coin Menorah!” and an image a menorah that looked similar to mine.

The word “shemira” was magical to me. In Hebrew it means watching or guarding.

Since I was a little girl in Ukraine, I used to travel every year with my grandmother to my great-grandparents’ burial place, the ohel in an old cemetery in Olevsk. She would pray there using small coins that she would cover tightly in fabric. She called these coins “shemira.”

After prayer she would give these coins to all her kids and grandkids. We knew that these were “special” coins that carried the power of our grandparents to protect us. I would carry them with me for good luck. I never took a medical school test in the USSR without one in my pocket.

I lost all the coins before we came to the U.S.

After my grandmother died and we immigrated here, I regretted that I had lost the little coins that signified a special connection with my grandmother and her family. As I read Yitz’s email, I suddenly realized they were not lost; the most important ones had been with me all along — inside the menorah.

Yitz told me that in the 19th century, it was customary to get shemira coins from prominent rabbis for good luck and special blessings. People used them as necklaces, other jewelry or household items. They made silver Kiddush cups from them. And even menorahs.

The image Yitz had attached was of a beautiful menorah that looked very similar to ours; it was from a book written in Hebrew about the significance of shemira.

Looking again at the dates and countries of the coins at the base of candleholders of our menorah, I thought that my great-grandfather, Rabbi Levi Itzhak Gottlieb, born in Ludmir, and his father, had probably collected silver coins from great chasidic rabbis of the 19th century. The coins probably had important significance for them.

Yitz said it was likely that each coin and each day of Chanukah held special significance for Rabbi Levi Itzhak.

Last Chanukah, we used our shemira coin menorah again — my mother, Polya Kipnis, granddaughter of Rabbi Levi Itzhak Gottlieb; and my son Michael Zatulovsky. Knowing the newly discovered story behind it was the best Chanukah present I could ask for. It connects me with my family, a blessing to have in my home. It is priceless, a museum piece and part of the chasidic history.

We will carefully use it again this year.

Recently I noticed I had missed very important details. Not only each base and each candle were numbered, but each corner of the base and the back of the menorah had tiny numbers engraved in a certain order.

What more mysteries may my menorah hold?

Mila Zatulovsky, “great-granddaughter of Rabbi Levi Itzhak from Ludmir,” is a pediatrician in Los Angeles.