Menorahs of the Heart

A menorah from Copenhagen selected by famed author-illustrator Maurice Sendak for a current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. Courtesy: The Jewish Museum.
A menorah from Copenhagen selected by famed author-illustrator Maurice Sendak for a current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York. Courtesy: The Jewish Museum.

Maurice Sendak is best known for his children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, but these days he is bringing menorahs to the masses.

An exhibition titled, “An Artist Remembers: Hanukkah Lamps Selected by Maurice Sendak,” featuring 33 menorahs of varied eras and styles, opened Dec. 2 at The Jewish Museum in New York City and is on display through Jan. 29, 2012.

Sendak, the renowned author/illustrator, selected the menorahs from The Jewish Museum’s existing—and extensive—collection. Born in Brooklyn to Polish Jewish immigrants, Sendak has described his childhood as a “terrible situation,” as much of his extended family died in the Holocaust, exposing him at an early age to death and the concept of mortality.

He said in an interview that the simplicity of the museum exhibition’s menorahs reminded him of the Holocaust.

“It is inappropriate for me to be thinking of elaboration,” Sendak told JointMedia News Service. “[The menorahs] are very beautiful. But this is not what instinctually I want to say about this kind of thing. So, I surprised myself, because there are some very beautiful ones. The beauty is contained in the fact that it’s a menorah, and that you never forget what its purpose is. So all the elaboration goes into what the purpose of the ornament is. It’s charming, and this is taking elaboration and making much beauty out of it.”

According to Susan Braunstein, one of the organizers of the exhibition and curator of Archaeology and Judaica at The Jewish Museum, the highly personal selection of lamps—many never before exhibited—echoes the depth of emotion that defines Sendak’s work.

“For Maurice Sendak they are powerful repositories of memory, embodying stories that illuminate the past for new generations,” Braunstein told JointMedia News Service. “The lamps speak to us of their survival through time and of the people that once made or owned them.”

Braunstein said visitors will be able to understand the deep connections between the emotions they evoked in Sendak and his aesthetic choices, and selected visitor memories will periodically be posted on the museum’s website at

After viewing Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia” in his early teens, Sendak (born in 1928) decided to become an illustrator and eventually drew up his first of 100 books, Peter and the Wolf. Sendak’s love of books was partially inspired by his development of health problems, confining him to his bed at an early age.

One of his Sendak’s first professional commissions was to create window displays for the F.A.O. Schwarz toy store. His illustrations were first published in 1947 in a textbook titled Atomics for the Millions, by Dr. Maxwell Leigh Eidinoff. He spent much of the 1950s working as an artist for children’s books before beginning to write his own stories.

Over a 60-year career, Sendak has taken characters, stories, and inspirations from his neighbors, family, pop culture, historical sources, and long-held childhood memories—winning every important prize in children’s literature along the way.

Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book, said Sendak remains a great storyteller.

“I’ve known Maurice for 30 years now, and while at eighty-three he is physically fragile, he is still the most vivid raconteur I have ever met,” Sutton told JointMedia News Service. “Nobody enacts scandalized outrage better. I don’t envy his biographer, though, as Maurice is completely capable of telling the same allegedly true story five different ways, all equally convincing.”

The New York exhibition also includes two original drawings for Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories (1966) and In Grandpa’s House(1985).

The menorahs Sendak found most compelling and poignant are those that “go right to the heart,” and whose “beauty is contained.” Yet, his sense of humor was never far from the surface. As he made his choices, Braunstein recalled, he often free-associated, whimsically recalling old movies and Catskills family vacations.

“Above all, he was guided by his sensibility as an artist and author,” she said.

The Jewish Museum possesses some the most significant holdings of Jewish ceremonial works in the Western Hemisphere, including the world’s foremost collection of menorahs. One of the world’s experts on menorahs, Braunstein oversees the museum’s extensive collection of 1,047 lamps—the world’s largest. At the museum for 31 years, she has learned much after creating exhibitions on menorahs and penning two books on them.

Sendak, Braunstein noted, learned that his relatives had died in the Holocaust on the day of his bar mitzvah, making the menorah-selection process an emotional one for him.

“The lamps went to Maurice’s heart and grabbed him,” Braunstein said. “It made him think of all the losses of his family and others in the Holocaust. He saw all of this rich life disrupted, so in order to honor that memory, he picked simple lamps. Each time he picked something he found the external forms beautiful and simple. The functionality was extremely important to him.”

The menorahs on view reflect the diversity of the museum’s collection, ranging from an early 20th-century lamp—created in the well-known Hagenauer Workshops, with spiral elements and flower buds characteristic of the Viennese Art Nouveau—to an 18th century piece from Frankfurt am Main, Germany, decorated with two smiling lions supporting a heart and topped by a large stork. Lamps from Austria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Galicia, Germany, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States are included.

“The sheer number of these lamps and their rich decoration—featuring Eastern European architectural motifs, elaborate floral ornamentation, and fantastic animals—stirred [Sendak’s] deep sense of loss for the members of his family who perished in the Holocaust, a trauma he has attempted to work through in much of his art,” Braunstein said.

The collection of menorahs, she added, “reflects the multitude of places where Jews have lived and flourished, as they often incorporate local styles and motifs.”

“The design and history of each lamp speak to a complex interaction of political events, Jewish law, artistic expression, and personal experience,” Braunstein said. “The millennia-old tradition of kindling the festival lights on a winter’s evening continues to have profound meaning around the world as a celebration of freedom and miracles.”

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