Arthur Freeman and his son Alan each have a favorite menorah, and it’s the same one.
The holiday of Chanukah commemorates the victory of the Jewish people in overthrowing their Syrian rulers over two millennia ago.
The Freeman’s menorah is also born of a military victory. “A cousin made it using bullet shells from one of the Israeli wars,” Alan Freeman said.
The shells are from the Israeli War of Independence, which was fought in 1947, according to Arthur Freeman.
“That’s something analogous to the Chanukah story,” Alan Freeman said. “Every time I light it, I think about more than just the Chanukah story.”
Menorahs are a fixture in most Jewish households, though not all have the significance of the Freeman’s.
The menorah, or more properly chanukeah, has eight branches, with an additional branch for a candle known as a shamush, or helper. The shamush is used to light the other eight.
A menorah has only seven branches. “The menorah occupied a place of honor in the Temple of Solomon,” said Stuart Weinblatt, Rabbi at B’nai Tzedak Synagogue in Potomac.
Whatever it is called, the traditions around lighting it are widely practiced. About 85 percent of Jewish families celebrate the holiday and light the candelabra, according to Weinblatt. “That’s a high percentage,” he said.
Weinblatt has several menorahs which he keeps for different reasons. “Each one has its own particular significance to me,” he said.
Weinblatt said the holiday, which in terms of religious significance is considered minor, has grown in popularity because of its nearness to Christmas.
At a time of year when Americans are inundated with symbols of a Christian holiday, “It offers us a chance to affirm our Judaism,” Weinblatt said.
Menorahs themselves have begun an explosion in styles in recent years. “It has turned into a real art form,” said Joyce Parker, manager of Zyzyx. The Bethesda store carries approximately 400 different menorahs, Parker said.
The variety of current menorahs can represent a break from the style proscribed by Jewish law. According to law, all eight of the branches should be in a straight line and of the same height, in order to symbolize the equality of each of the eight days.
The Shamush is usually set out of the line and a bit higher so that it is easy to tell that it is not part of ritual lights.
Many of the newer menorahs do away with these conventions and have candles in a variety of places.
Weinblatt said that there is ample room to express creativity and expression without violating the standards.
“I don’t understand why there is such a proclivity toward creating menorahs that are not in accordance with Jewish law.”
Parker says that he see many different sorts of menorahs at his store. “They are either traditional or modern, with nothing in between,” he said.
Popular right now are sports menorahs, with football, baseball or soccer themes, Parker said.
Some people, like Arthur Freeman, have taken to collecting menorahs for their artistic value; he has about 20 of them.
He personally leans toward the current wave of hand-made decorative models in his collecting.
While he continues to use his bullet shell model during the holiday, as he has for many years, he collects a wide variety of different kinds.
“I’m not a purist,” he said. “I just look for things that are appealing to the eye.”