Constable: Hanukkah menorahs, dreidels go from traditional to wacky
Once a rather modest Jewish holiday, Hanukkah and its growing popularity are fueling an explosion in sales of menorahs, dreidels and other products. Some Hanukkah menorahs -- the candelabrum with nine branches -- and dreidels -- the four-sided top with Hebrew letters -- are cheap, whimsical and fun. Others are fine art pieces that are sought-after collectibles.
Hanukkah, which begins at sundown on Sunday, is not as spiritually significant as the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It's not as important as Passover, which commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage in ancient Egypt, or Sukkot, a weeklong harvest festival.
Hanukkah doesn't place additional dietary demands or temple obligations on the celebrants, and the eight-day festival of lights usually uses tasty fried food, such as potato latkes and jelly doughnuts, to commemorate the miracle of the oil following the victory of the Maccabees in Jerusalem.
"It's not a huge holiday. It's a fun holiday," says Debbie Steiner, a 64-year-old Buffalo Grove woman who recently discovered a talent for making glass art and sought-after menorahs.
"My Judaica has really taken off. I sell a lot of menorahs and mezuzas," Steiner says. Her mezuzas, which hold verses from the Torah and are meant to be affixed to doorways, sell for $45 or $55. Her menorahs start at $110 for her child's Fairy Garden scene with hidden fairies and animals, and top out at $195 for her Blue Wave piece of art.
Steiner, who works in the photo department at a Walgreens in Lake Zurich, took a couple of classes and watched a lot of online tutorials before making her own fused glass art in a kiln at very high temperatures in 2019. She decided to make menorahs after seeing the other offerings in shops.
"There are cute ones. There are nice ones. They're just not art like I'm making," Steiner says. Her collections are sold at debbiesteinerglassart.com, but also at suburban craft and art shows. "My mother (Sandy Fox) was an artist. She painted," says Steiner, who gets help from her husband, Alan Steiner, her father, Marvin Fox, her son, Avi, her daughter, Sarah, and her sister, Cathy Fox.
"I found out there's a lot of people who collect menorahs," Steiner says.
The Hebrew word Hanukiah, or Chanukiah, refers to the lamp used to celebrate Hanukkah. "Most of the fun, wacky Hanukkiot (the plural form) are fine to use, but the candles (or oil cups) are supposed to be in a single row of equal height, with only the Shamash (the candle used to light the others) distinct from the other eight," advises an email from Rabbi Warner Ferratior at Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook.
Regular customers visit Rosenblum's World of Judaica in Skokie every Hanukkah to buy the annual menorahs from Jewish artists Gary Rosenthal, who mixes metal and fused glass; Yair Emanuel, who works in metal; Shraga Landesman, who uses laser-cut aluminum; and others.
"I'm surprised at the different things that come out every year," says Josh Zwelling, a managing partner in the legendary store that has been around for more than 80 years. "It's one of our busiest times of the year."
While the sterling silver Yochanan Kinetic Menorah by Israeli silversmith Avi Nadav sells for $3,973, Hanukkah doesn't have to be expensive. You can buy an economy tin menorah for $3.50 online at Rosenblum's judaica.com. Many of the menorahs are designed to interest children in the holiday. Some feature basketballs, baseballs, soccer balls and other sports themes for $29.99. Menorahs also come with princesses, cupcakes, bicycles and even one featuring a collection of emojis.
Dreidels also span the spectrum, from the $1,750 sterling silver Rachav Hanukkah Dreidel depicting the city walls of Jerusalem, to 39-cent plastic dreidels.
"The hit dreidels are the kids' dreidels," says Eva Belavsky, who works in the store. "They all have lights and they sing. The moms and the grandmothers all want these for the kids."
A popular Hanukkah song's lyrics go, "Oh, dreidel, dreidel, dreidel, I made you out of clay," and Rosenblum does carry artsy handmade clay dreidels for $48. "You can spin it, but you don't want to," Belavsky says.
While most people light candles to mark the eight days of Hanukkah, Zwelling says people living in college dorms often aren't allowed to light candles because of the fire risk. So, menorahs with electric lights range from artist Emanuel's $235 elegant metal version, to a battery-operated Dancing Lights Musical Menorah for $19.99.
"Some people are traditionalists and want to use oil," Zwelling says. While a lasercut, hand-painted oil menorah made in the form of a peacock sells for $209, the collection includes a simple, gold-colored menorah with glass cups for $8.80. A set of 44 oil lanterns in multiple colors, enough to provide fuel for all eight nights of lighting, sells for $54.
As much as she enjoys making art for Hanukkah, Steiner also makes decorative glass Christmas trees, ornaments that appear to be made out of stained glass, glass Christmas sweater ornaments, Santa boot earrings, and even a cross to hang on a wall. It's all about celebrating holidays that make people feel good, says Steiner.
"The Christmas stuff I do is just fun," Steiner says.