‘The Art of Hanukkah” by Nancy M. Berman (Universe) tells the story of the holiday through 48 masterpieces of ceremonial art, from individual oil lamps to illuminated manuscripts to elaborate menorahs, both traditional and modern, from familiar to extraordinary, made over the centuries. Beautifully reproduced in full color, each object faces a page of text, in which Berman, a former curator of the Hebrew Union College Skirball Museum, places them in its historical and cultural context.
Berman explains, “The creation of beautiful objects to enhance religious ritual is one way in which the Jewish people have expressed their intense love of God and their urge to glorify Him, and to this end Jewish sages encourage artistic design, decoration, and the use of beautiful material in the making of ceremonial objects…. The [ancient] rabbis understood that the human gift of and need for artistic expression could be used to enhance spiritual acts of ritual and worship.”
There’s much that’s appealing to peruse, including a 13th-century French illumination of the passage in Exodus when Aaron, the high priest, pours oil into the lamps of a very tall menorah. The many menorahs, whether bronze, silver, pewter, tin or ceramic include a 19th-century “Hamsa Lamp,” made in Iraq, with stylized folk art decorations, especially the hamsa, or hand image, “invested with the amuletic power to ward off the evil eye.” Ceremonial artist Moshe Zabari’s “Masada Lamp,” made in 1967 of silver in undulating waves, representing the mountain rising from the Dead Sea, links the triumph at Masada to the victory of Judah Maccabee.
Sumptuously illustrated, “Venice, The Jews and Europe: 1516-2016” by Donatella Calabi (Marsilio/Rizzoli) is an extensive and detailed history of the Venice Ghetto, published in connection with an exhibition commemorating the 500th year anniversary of the institution of the Ghetto by the Venetian Republic. Calabi, professor of history of Venice at IUAV University in Venice, who curated the exhibition, pulls together art, architecture, historic documents, letters and other remnants of material culture; the exhibit describes and analyzes the first ghetto in the world, reconstructing its daily life, the meanings of segregation, and the complexities of identity over the centuries for the Jews.
With a creative spirit, Esty Frankel-Fersel “converts” well-known artistic masterpieces into their Jewish versions — with some edits and painterly revisions. For example, Mona Lisa becomes “Minna Leah,” who sports a sheitel and a white top tucked underneath her dress. Frankel-Fersel adds a thick book in front of Rodin’s “The Thinker,” and in her version the graceful sculptural figure is leaning and learning Torah. Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss,” with its gold-patterned tapestry, becomes Jacob’s coat of many colors.
Frankel-Fersel grew up in Crown Heights, where she learned to reproduce classic works of art in oil on canvas. “Converted Masters: World Famous Masterpieces with a Jewish Twist” (Menorah Books) includes full-color reproductions of her conversions as well as the classic versions that provided inspiration. Her work will make readers laugh, maybe cringe, and look more deeply at the original work.
For young readers
“Oy Vey: Life in a Shoe” by Bonnie Grubman (Apples & Honey Press) is told in rhyme, with evocative, colorful illustrations by Dave Mottram. The story brings together a well-known Jewish folktale about bringing animals into one’s house to reduce the crowding and the story of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. The first line begins, “Mrs. Greenbaum lived in a shoe, / with her thirteen kids and her husband Lou,” and goes on to tell a humorous and poignant tale that speaks to all those who’d like a little more space in their homes and their lives, and to their children, too.
The author of “A Hanukkah with Mazel” (Kar-Ben), Joel Edward Stein has fond memories of growing up with his mother reading him stories by Hans Christian Anderson. In his first children’s book, he invents the story of a poor painter who finds a cat in his barn in Poland and shares his meager food supply with him (and names him Mazel). When they have no money at Chanukah time, he paints a scene with a menorah, and “lights” it every night. Elisa Vavouri’s charming illustrations illuminate the holiday.
Written by mother and daughter Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman, “Potatoes at Turtle Rock” details how one family follows its own tradition of celebrating Chanukah in the woods. For their evening adventure, the family members bring games and riddles, create a menorah from potatoes and make dreidels in the snow, expressing their gratitude. The Welsh illustrator Alex Steele-Morgan paints an awe-inspiring winter night sky.