Photos by Jonathan Charles Fox

In the midst of Tommy Gelb’s menorah collection stands a very traditional Hanukkah candelabrum just like my grandmother’s.

Here comes Hanukkah, however you may spell it

Bethel, NY — Well, that was fast. I’m still eating Thanksgiving leftovers and putting away the last of the pots and pans required to make my world-famous “mock apple pie” (snackworks.com). The pie started out as a joke (It’s made entirely from Ritz crackers), but has become a holiday tradition among my friends. In between reading birthday cards for the dog (she got hundreds, I kid you not) and lighting the traditional yahrzeit candle (chabad.org) in remembrance of my mother, I glanced at the calendar and was stunned to see that Hanukkah (Chanukah?) begins in three days. “How can that be?” I asked Dharma, who blithely ignored me and chewed on a new bone. “Christmas is still a month away!”

While I fully embrace my Jewish heritage, and attended Sunday school for years, my working knowledge of Judaism is sketchy at times and my mind is always sluggish after pie, apple or otherwise. Sure enough, Chanukah (Hanukkah?) begins on the night of December 2, ending on the 10th, long before Santa begins making his appointed rounds. I am aware, of course, that the two holidays have nothing in common save for the month they are observed, but it’s still fun (IMHO) when they coincide. Unlike the standard Gregorian (solar) calendar that follows fixed dates for religious holidays, the Hebrew calendar is based on the lunar cycle, and therefore always fluid. Also known as “The Festival of Lights,” Hanukkah (you thought about it, didn’t you?) is considered a minor holiday “commemorating the rededication of the second temple of Jerusalem,” according to Wikipedia, and “lasts for eight nights and days, starting on the 25th day of Kislev, which can occur at any time from late November to late December in the Gregorian.”

“Well, that’s not confusing at all,” I grumbled, watching Dharma unwrap yet another birthday gift. “Let your fingers do the walking,” my mother would say when I asked too many questions. In other words, “Look it up.” A few quick clicks of the keyboard revealed that there really is something called “Chanukah for Dummies” on PRI.org, which I perused while shopping for dreidel-shaped chew toys online. “The act of lighting a special, nine-branched candelabrum is one of the main rituals, but what most people don’t know is that the correct name for the candleholder is Hanukkiah,” the website reads. Groaning over the discovery of a hitherto unknown third spelling, I read on. “Though Chanukah (Hanukkiah?) didn’t become popular until the late 1800s (I had no clue), its history predates that of Christmas.”

I have my grandmother’s traditional menorah packed in a box, along with my mom’s—electric and garish, but there are literally thousands of designs out there in the world. I’ve seen dinosaurs and cartoon characters wielding the candles, and even some that are 10 feet tall, so when I heard that Stacy Cohen (new.dancing catsaloon.com) had invited artist David Klass and menorah enthusiast Tommy Gelb to exhibit their candleholders at the Stray Cat Gallery in Bethel, NY (straycat gallery.com), I put the pie down and headed out. Klass was not on hand at the “Menorah Show” reception, but Judaica (historical materials relating to Judaism) collector Gelb was, and we chatted briefly while Dharma chased the cat (yes, there’s a stray cat) upstairs. “Look, this one’s an Erté, and it’s signed,” Tommy said. “And this one? Salvador Dali. Yes, it’s quite rare.” Gelb’s vast collection numbers more than 1,000 pieces, and includes hundreds of spice containers, called besamim. With Hanukkah (I’ll never get it right) about to commence, though, it’s his menorahs taking center stage.

Proprietor Cohen said the pieces will be at the gallery through next weekend, on sale on the weekdays. “But you can just give me a call… I’m usually here,” she added. When asked why he was selling off his collection, Gelb smiled. “Well, it was my wife’s idea,” he said with a wink, “and downsizing did make sense when we recently decided to move. So I’m cataloging the collection and working on a book, before they are all illuminating new homes for the holiday.”

I dug out Mom’s ugly plastic menorah when I got back to the house and plugged it in to make sure that the “flames” would light up next Sunday. Admittedly, it’s no Salvador Dali, but it’s just as precious to me. Next week—what the heck is a dreidel?

 

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