Shedding a Special Light on Hanukkah at the MFA

 

 

It was beginning to feel a lot like Hanukkah at the Museum of Fine Arts last Wednesday when the Shapiro Family Courtyard was transformed into a large-scale celebration for the senses. The oversized interactive menorah cast its magic light over the crowd as some swayed to Ezekiel’s Wheels Klezmer Band, some created their own menorahs at the nearby crafts table, and some checked their official program guide, trying to fit as many of the evening’s overlapping art, music and storytelling offerings into their time schedule as possible.

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Young and old gather in the Shapiro Family Courtyard to create one-of-a-kind menorahs.

 

Harriet and Jeff Brand of Marblehead were among the more than 1,000 attendees. At the third annual event “It’s just so festive and wonderful to see all the families here,” said Harriet, as a group of toddlers scrambled past. “It’s exciting the MFA is recognizing the joy of Hanukkah,” added Jeff.

 

“Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights” was presented by the MFA in partnership with the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston (CJP) and the newly formed Jewish Arts Collaborative (JArts), with support from the Consulate General of Israel to New England.

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The large-scale, interactive menorah changes whose flames change color as visitors approach.

 

This year’s celebration featured “Inworlds”, a cutting-edge mixed reality short performance created by Secret Portal in association with Dudley Square Studios that was as experiential as experimental. A live actor and a volunteer who wore a virtual reality headset interacted on a stage bathed in projected visuals that mirrored what the volunteer was seeing. The first-of-its-kind exploration told a story of loss, miracles, friendships and discovery, meant to reflect the miracle of Hanukkah itself.

 

For Laura Mandel, JArts Executive Director, this was the highlight of the 2016 event, and not just because her husband is part of the creative team behind it. “I have loved watching the evolution of our virtual reality endeavor. The end result is a beautiful look into the most current technology out there,” she said. “It excites me that we can inspire artists to push these boundaries in innovative ways, all tying us back to the miracle and illumination of Hanukkah.”

 

JArts was launched last December when the Boston Jewish Music Festival and New Center for Arts & Culture joined forces to create a bold new initiative to share the history, artistry and universality of Jewish Culture. Joey Baron, who co-created the Boston Jewish Music Festival with Jim Ball, is JArts Creative Director.

 

Baron’s selection of the evening’s musical events included a Hanukkah sing-a-long with cantor and klezmer clarinetist Becky Khitrik, the klezmer band Ezekial’s Wheels, a group Boston Jewish Music Festival helped introduce to Boston audiences, and the award-winning Nigun Chamber Ensemble.

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The award-winning Nigun Chamber Ensemble perform Jewish songs from pre-war Eastern Europe.

 

Baron was most enthusiastic about Wendy Jehlen’s performance. Jehlen is founder and artistic director of Anikaya Dance, which weaves together music, dance and storytelling from disparate traditions and different ways of understanding.

 

“I’m not all that much of a dance fan, but there’s nothing like experiencing a dancer performing to live music in such an inspiring setting as a museum gallery setting. I think it could be magical,” he said.

 

Throughout the evening, “Spotlight Talks: Judaica” explored works of Judaica in four galleries with 15-minute talks that featured exploration of one or two specific pieces. A panel of curators, artists, Rabbis and educators discussed Judaica and Judaism at the MFA, in Bosoton and beyond.

 

No Hanukkah festivity would be complete without gifts, and the MFA celebration was no exception. The crowd eagerly awaited the unveiling of the just released 2016 Hanukkah stamp, its official party favor of the evening. The United States Postal Service’s official representative did the honors with great flourish to the sounds of snapping cameras and cell phones and robust claps and cheers.

 

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A United State Postal Service representative officially unveils the 2016 Hanukkah stamp.

But it was the installation of the giant menorah that really stole the show. The unique art menorah installation, “Step To Hanukkah Lights”, uses advanced technology to enable visitors to “light” a menorah by stepping on a platform with nine, free standing 8-foot candles. When they approach each candle, their proximity changes the menorah’s colors. The number of people close to the menorah and to each other alters the intensity and the color of the “flames.” It is quite something to behold and even more amazing to experience.

 

The menorah will remain on display at the MFA for two weeks and was created by a team of three local artists: Saul Baizman, Fish McGill and Andrew Ringler.

 

Neil Wallack, chair of CJP Board of Directors, was one of eight who offered remarks prior to the candle lighting. He referred to the evening as illustrative of “our combined efforts to repair the world. The light in our community gets brighter when we are together.”

 

After the menorah was lit, everyone joined in singing the Hanukkah prayers. “I get goose bumps every time I see 1,000-plus people singing Hanukkah blessings in the courtyard. That moment is the definition of community to me,” said Mandel, holding her squirming 18-month old.

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Let Us Be a Light Unto Our Children This Hanukkah

Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights and the Feast of Dedication, is a happy holiday, one that commemorates a Jewish military victory and a miracle reflecting God’s intervention on our behalf. It is rich with symbolism and ritual. It is also rich with spirituality, and presents a golden opportunity to teach and show our children what it means to be Jewish.

Like Passover and Sukkot, the majority of Hanukkah rituals take place in the home. We create meaning and memories with our families, taking turns lighting the menorah candles, eating traditional foods and playing dreidel. These activities remind us who we are and where we come from; they link us to each other and anchor us in our Judaism.

These days, it is a challenge to avoid letting Hanukkah become trivialized as a retaildriven, superficial Christmas analog. Our children in particular are under pressure from their peers and the media. It is our job to help them find comfort and significance in the simple act of lighting a candle.

Each flickering flame has the power to connect us to light, the conqueror of darkness and the original source of nourishment. During these dark winter solstice nights, when we place the Hanukkah menorah in a window visible to the public, as is customary in many communities, we go one step further.

Our menorah in the window shows the world that we Jews bring light into the world, that we take seriously and literally our charge of “tikkun olam” (repairing the world). Our menorah in the window shows the world that despite the recent rash of anti-Semitism, we will not be intimidated; we will continue to display our Judaism proudly and publicly.

For Jews, the meaning of light is inspiration, courage, warmth, strength and belief in oneself. This is the lesson of Hanukkah 2014 that we can pass on to our children.

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on December 18, 2014.