My husband Patrick is a teacher, and it's holiday time at his school. The teachers are drawing each other's names and exchanging gifts this year, and in an effort to keep everyone's feathers unruffled, people were asked to include what holiday (if any) they would be celebrating -- Christmas, Chanukah, or Kwanza. Patrick drew a Chanukah, and after a bit of asking around, found out that the person collected menorahs. Since he's been good this year, I agreed to help Patrick on the purchasing end of things.Denise Schwartz, owner of Hatikva ( www.hatikva.com ; 858-695-9777), a store that specializes in Judaica, was happy to help me out. "Chanukah" means rededication in Hebrew. "Chanukah is about a miracle," said Schwartz, "and the menorah reminds us of that miracle." The story of the miracle is that long ago, in the land of Judea, a Syrian king, Antiochus, ordered the Jewish people to reject their God and their religion, and to worship the Greek gods. Judah Maccabee and his four brothers formed an army to fight the Syrians. After three years, the Maccabees were triumphant, and they reclaimed the temple in Jerusalem. They set about cleaning the temple and removing the Greek symbols. On the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the job was finished, and the temple was rededicated. Judah wanted to light an eternal light, known as N'er Tamid, which is present in every Jewish house of worship. Only a tiny jug of oil was found, with just enough oil for a single day. The miracle was that the tiny amount of oil stayed lit not for one day, but for eight days.
"The menorah," said Schwartz, "used to have only seven branches -- one for each day of creation. But because of the miracle of the oil, it now has eight branches -- one for each day of Chanukah. And there is one additional branch in the middle, which always looks different from the others, called the Shamash. It helps to light the other candles. First you light the Shamash, and then you light the other candles off the Shamash. On the first day, you light the first candle. On the second day, you light the first and second candles, and so on." All in all, "44 candles get lit, with the Shamash being the 45th. They need to be burned for an hour a day. Longer is okay, but not less than an hour. This year, December 25 will be the first evening of Chanukah. We light the candle at sundown."
I knew that some Jews, as part of their observance of the Sabbath, didn't light fires on that day. "The Friday before the Sabbath, or Shabbat," explained Schwartz, "we first light the Chanukah candle, and then the Sabbath candles. Then, on Saturday night, we light a candle called the havdalah [ $4.95 ] to end the Sabbath, and then we light the Chanukah candles for that night. The lighting is never on the Shabbat; it is always before it and after it."
Schwartz sells Chanukah candles made in Israel ( $5.95-$7.95 for a pack of 45). "Some of my candles are made in Safat, which is a holy city in Israel. They are dripless and very good quality. It's good to keep your candles in the freezer," she offered. "They'll last longer."
I started perusing the menorahs in Schwartz's shop. "The menorah is a traditional item in any Jewish home," she told me, "no matter how observant you are. Chanukah is a holy day for everybody; a happy holiday. We are not obligated to use any one kind of menorah," she said -- and so she carries a wide range. "A traditional menorah, which represents what we had in the old days, has branches which all run toward the center. She carried several in pewter ( $42-$95 , depending on size). "Pewter has a great advantage over silver. It doesn't get tarnished, so you don't have to polish it."
She also carries many more modern menorahs, made from glass, ceramic, and bronzed metal. "This one is super-modern," she said, pointing out a menorah composed of rectangular blocks and made by artist Gary Rosenthal from metal and fused glass. "People love that; it is so different, and yet it still has the eight candle spots and the Shamash." Most of Schwartz's menorahs are kosher, meaning that "all eight days are level with each other, with the Shamash differentiated -- it can be either traditional or modern style."
She also carries menorahs for kids; one featured Curious George, another Mickey and Donald, and a third butterflies ( $49.95-$90 ).
Finally, she showed me the electric menorahs ( $24-$59 ). "There is a need for these. People that live in rest homes or hospitals, who are not allowed to use fire, can use them. Also, people like to put them in their windows. You just plug them in and loosen the bulbs, then tighten them one by one as the days of Chanukah go on."
Next, I stopped into Dor L'Dor (858-273-1800), another Judaica store off of Morena Boulevard. Manager Tia Dorfan told me they carried about 300 to choose from. "Some young people like the artsy style; older people tend to like the more traditional ones. They use very beautiful candles [ $1.20-$15.95 ]. Others will use oil, which is more commemorative of Chanukah. Some menorahs are made to hold oil; others you can convert to oil by putting an oil holder [ $1 ] in the top. You can use everyday olive oil for burning. Just put a wick [ $.95 a package] in it."
One of Dor L'Dor's menorahs was shaped as a glass ark ( $15.95 ), another as a glass American flag ( $189.95 ). They ranged from the whimsical -- thin, painted metal, adorned with four fat ladies donning bathing suits ( $44.95 ) -- to the sublime -- a menorah made from Jerusalem stone, capped with glass pillars and etched with Jewish imagery: a rabbi reading, a hand with an eye in the palm ( $320 ).
Other places to buy menorahs:
Pier 1: Black wrought-iron traditional menorah, $15 . Blue-and-white tapered candles, $6 .
Linens 'n Things: Electric menorah, $49.99 . Chanukah candles, $4.99-$9.99 . Modern Draydelettes menorah, $29.99 . Traditional aluminum menorah, $19.99 .