Annual JArts Hanukkah celebration at the MFA has a new feminine twist

Yemenite singer and songwriter Tair Haim

By Shelley A. Sackett

BOSTON – Since 2015, Jewish Arts Collaborative has brought the Greater Boston community together to celebrate Hanukkah at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Despite Covid constraints, JArts, the MFA and JCC Association of North America and their JFest program have collaborated to bring an innovative and uplifting Hanukkah program into the homes of celebrants across the country with their virtual event on Wednesday, December 1, “Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights.”

This year, the tradition of partnering with local artists and communities to create an exceptional evening for all ages has a special feminine twist.

The free program will feature eight Hanukkah lamps, including six from the MFA’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman Collection, and eight international women artists for an evening of performance, education, global diversity and artistic engagement. Like an elegant wine pairing where patrons enjoy wine at its fullest potential by pairing it with the perfect food, these performances and lamps elevate and balance each other, bringing out the best in both.

German Rococo Hanukkah Lamp, about 1750 Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Each piece will last approximately five minutes. Slides of the corresponding lamp will appear during the presentations.

The idea behind this year’s theme germinated from brainstorming sessions between Laura Conrad Mandel, JArts Executive Director, and the MFA’s Charles and Lynn Schusterman Curator of Judaica, Simona Di Nepi.

Originally from Rome, Di Nepi studied and worked in London and Tel Aviv for 25 years before coming to the US. She became the first full-time Judaica curator at the MFA (as well as at any other encyclopedic museum in the US) in 2017. Her appointment followed the gift in 2013 of 120 decorative and ritual objects from the Charles and Lynn Shusterman Collection.

Although “Judaica” typically describes ritual objects used in the home or in the synagogue across history, geography and media, Di Nepi stresses that she takes a broader view. “Any kind of MFA material or object that is related to Jewish life, art and history can be considered as Judaica,” she said, adding that as curator, it is also her job to decide what “Judaica” means at the MFA.

Mandel asked Di Nepi to choose an array of Hanukkah lamps. “Some of the lamps are on display, but others are in storage, so this a unique opportunity to hear about them. Each of the lamps represents a different aspect of global Jewry in an effort to spotlight the diversity of Jewish culture,” Mandel said.

Italian cook Silvia Nacamulli will offer a cooking demo

After they picked the lamps, the team curated artists with connections to the stories behind the Hanukkah lamps. Their hope is that by pairing a lamp with a particular artist, attendees will be inspired to reimagine these beautiful objects of Judaica in ways that capture their imaginations and bring to life each lamp’s contemporary culture.

During the selection process, and purely by coincidence, they realized how many women’s voices they were drawn to. “We suddenly realized we had all women. There’s a theme there as well that adds special value to the evening,” Di Nepi said. “Eight nights of Hanukkah, eight lamps and eight women guests.”

Contemporary dancer Rachel Linsky was inspired by Linda Threadgill’s “Garden of Light Hanukkah lamp.

The full program includes an exciting mix of artforms, including dance, singing and, for the first time, a culinary event. Italian cook Silvia Nacamulli will do a cooking demo. Her presentation is paired with a 16th century Italian bronze lamp.

Tair Haim is a powerhouse Yemenite Israeli singer, songwriter and founder of the internationally acclaimed group A-WA who took the music world by storm with the mega hit ‘Habib Galbi’. Her performance is paired with a 1920s silver Yemeni lamp which features figures of the Maccabees and is one of Di Nepi’s favorites. “I have a weakness for the Yemenite one,” she said with a laugh when pressed to choose.

Hanukkah lamp Yehia Yemini (born In Yemen (Sana), active in Israel, 1897–1983) 1920s Yemenite Hanukkah lamp, 1920s * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Boston-based contemporary dancer, choreographer and educator Rachel Linsky filmed her original piece at the Gardens at Elm Bank in Dover. It was inspired by American Linda Threadgill’s lithe and charming 1999 silver, bronze and walnut lamp, “Garden of Lights,”.

Indian Israeli singer Liora Isaac has an ardent following in Israel, where she highlights a unique look at Indian-Israeli culture. Her performance will be paired with a 20th century brass lamp from India.

Hanukkah lamp Linda Threadgill (American, born in 1947) 1999 Silver, bronze, walnut * Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Neta Elkayam, another wildly popular Israeli visual artist and singer of North African music, brings a Moroccan flavor to her work, complementing a silver early 20th century Moroccan lamp. The striking American Ladino singer and composer, Sarah Aroeste, will add to  the evening with her feminist Ladino rock. An elegant 17th century bronze lamp joins hr.

Israeli visual artist and singer of North African music Neta Elkayam

Rounding out the Hanukkah lamp selections are a charming 1960 silver American piece (Di Nepi will interview Massachusetts-based jeweler and metalsmith Cynthia Eid) and an ornate 1750 silver German lamp that is embellished with elaborate Rococo ornaments that support figures of Judith and David, two ancient Jewish heroes. American Mizrachi belly dancer Jackie Barzvi’s performance accompanies the lamp. “This lamp reflects the [artistic] language of the time,” Di Nepi explained. “In Germany, that language was Rococo, with its distinctive and precise motifs. Jewish materials spoke that local artistic language too.”

For more information and to register, visit jartsboston.org/event/hanukkah-the-festival-of-lights-2/

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