BOSTON – “Everyone’s a small light, and all of us are a firm light,” a menorah flame will soon tell hundreds of people.
That “flame” will actually be repurposed fabric wrapped around chicken wire, designed to resemble the candelabras the Jews of antiquity once used to tell time and announce their holidays. It is one of eight six-foot-tall flames, each emblazoned with a different meditation on light and liberation, that make up the twenty-foot-tall menorah that will stand in the courtyard of the Museum of Fine Arts and greet the 4,000 or so visitors to the sixth annual Jewish Arts Collaborative Hanukkah Celebration at the MFA on Dec. 18.
The Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts), a Newton-based nonprofit promoting Jewish arts and culture, has teamed up with the MFA and a number of sponsors throughout Greater Boston to offer a free night of Hanukkah-themed arts, crafts, stories, music, dance, performances, food, and more that was recently listed by Martha Stewart as one of America’s eight best Hanukkah celebrations. According to JArts Executive Director Laura Mandel, the night aims to communicate the spirit and universality of Hanukkah in diverse and unexpected ways to as many people as possible. “We want to bring the miracle and light of Hanukkah to everyone in Boston,” said Mandel. “You can bring your 5-year-old to have a good time, you can be 25 and have a good time, you could be 95 and have a good time. What we’ve really worked on over the last few years is making sure that we have a lot of interesting, innovative programs that appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds so that who you are or where you’re coming from, you experience something really beautiful of Hanukkah.”
“This came from just some casual conversations about what could be done together, and it’s a night that has really grown over time, and our partnership has really grown to be a flourishing experience for everybody,” said Kristen Hoskins, the MFA’s curator of lectures, courses, and concerts. Hoskins and Mandel both noted that the two institutions collaborate fully on all aspects of the evening, from curation to execution.
The initial partnership began five years when the MFA approached JArts to help coordinate one of its many free cultural celebrations (others include Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of lights.) Since then, the collaboration has expanded to include 16 other organizations, companies, synagogues, universities, and schools that have helped bring in a diverse range of activities and talent, stationed all throughout the museum. The Vilna Shul in Boston has sponsored a children’s face-painting station, while Gann Academy in Waltham helped bring in singer Rosalie Gerut, who will perform songs in Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Ladino, and Russian. Hebrew College and PJ Library helped bring in different forms of Hanukkah storytelling, and Eastern Bank has sponsored tours of the MFA’s Judaica collection. Eight Greater Boston schools have worked with artist and educator Tova Speter to create an interactive glowing black light installation inspired by Hanukkah themes of light and darkness. Not all the stations are strictly related to Hanukkah either: Gift of Life, an organization devoted to finding donors to help blood cancer patients, has sponsored a cheek swabbing station to for potential bone marrow donors.
“We have this broad cross section of the community who all want to be a part of this, and what I love is that each of them in some capacity helps manage part of the program,” said Mandel. “The idea is that all of these partnerships are really taking ownership of the evening. They’re really making something that’s for of their own communities, so we’re truly making a community of communities around the holiday.”
This will all begin with a community lighting, led by CJP President Rabbi Marc Baker, of Persist and Rise from Ashes, the name of the menorah created by South African-born Israeli artist Caron Tabb. Tabb, who now lives in Newton, worked for many years in nonprofit organizations before an art class inspired her to become a full-time artist. For her first menorah and first commissioned public art installation, Tabb wanted to create something that communicated Hanukkah’s themes of light, freedom, and overcoming adversity. “It talks more about the universal story of what it means to overcome challenges – not only the Jewish people, and that’s my story for this piece and beyond. It’s a moment in time, and we have a responsibility,” said Tabb, who has chosen related quotes from Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King – some in English, and some in Hebrew – to adorn each of the nine candles. When the menorah is lit, electricity will light up the flames’ flowery calligraphy, and they will stay illuminated in the MFA’s Shapiro Family Courtyard for all to see until mid-January.
“How far that little candle throws his beams,” reads one of the flames, quoting from Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” How very far indeed.