Curator’s Catch

December 2017: Hanukkah Lamp

Hanukkah Lamp
  • Object No.: 1982.06.01
  • Donor: Ray Wallerstein
  • Description:

    8” inch, tin plate lamp, ca. 1900

For eight nights in a row, Jewish families around the world light candles in celebration of Hanukkah. The menorahs used for this ritual can be elaborate works of art, fun objects expressing the owner’s hobbies, or modest examples like the one you see here.

Our lamp is made from a sheet of tin and features eight candleholders in front of a plain back plate, with a shamash on the upper right to kindle the lights. The menorah could not be more simple in its design. And yet, as unassuming as this Hanukkah lamp may look, it helps us tell the story of the invention of modern Hanukkah.

The lamp belonged to Ray Wallerstein (1897-1996), whose parents – immigrants from Russia – used it for their Hanukkah celebrations. At the time of her parents’ arrival in the U.S. in the 1880s, Hanukkah was for most Jewish regions in the world just a minor holiday. Simultaneously, reforming rabbis and community members in America were in the midst of revitalizing and searching for meaningful ways to honor the Jewish holiday that competed with the more lavish Christmas celebrations. They reinvented rituals that put children and the family at the center, and revolved around the home: The traditional lighting of the candles was paired with singing songs, treating children to sweets, and handing them little gifts – a way of celebrating that was more similar to their Christian peers. Over the decades to come, Hebrew schools and Jewish organizations began to hand out tin lamps like this one, along with a set of candles. Their goal was to give children their own ritual objects, build devotion to Judaism, and boost the Hanukkah spirit.

This led us to the assumption that Ray might have brought this lamp home from kindergarten or school. The signs of wear and tear testify to its regular use and it seems that Ray’s parents never upgraded to a new or more glamorous lamp. We can only wonder of how much the family immersed itself in the new American rituals around Hanukkah. Still, our modest tin lamp serves as a springboard to talk about negotiating Jewish identity on a personal and communal level in America – a theme that we will explore in detail in our new museum.

What kind of Hanukkah lamp do you use? Does it hold a special story about your family? Share your photos and stories with us via