An Important American Synagogue Chanukah Lamp, New England, Circa 1880

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An Important American Synagogue Chanukah Lamp
On four lobed-leaf form footed supports, stem decorated with applied
rosettes. Large square base with two higher tiers of alternating shapes, each

bearing identical cut-out motifs of semi-organic forms. Four two-
dimensional crouching lions are placed at each corner of the base: each lion

bears hand-engraved features such as mane locks, eyes and mouth.
Dense scrollwork on base and on lower stem, as well as between each arm.
Crown finial in center, taller / extended servant light on end. Each
candlestick holder is in a highly realistic form of lotus flowers. Made of
metal that was fire-gilded, so the appearance would be of solid gold, as
was the Temple Menorah. Large, tight grouping of expertly fashioned
rivets on underside of base. Made circa 1890 to 1910, United States of
America. Provenance: formerly in the collection of Congregation Mishkan
Tefila; the oldest Conservative Synagogue in New England (founded 1858).

The period between 1880 and 1924 is perhaps the most well-known in
American Jewish history. This is the period of mass Jewish immigration
that brought the families of so many American Jews to this country.
Pushed by increasing anti-Semitism and pulled by the economic and social
promise of America, these immigrants, chiefly of Russian and East
European origin, came in numbers so vast that they remade much of the
American Jewish community. This Chanukah lamp is a fascinating, unique
hybrid in that the design and construction was directly influenced from
this wave of immigration, as for the most part, the look of this lamp is
distinctly Eastern European (specifically Poland and the Ukraine), yet it
retains fashions popular in America at the time of manufacture.
Referencing the most respected, if not revered book that was ever
published on antique Chanukah lamps, “The Hanukkah Lamp”, by Mordechai Narkiss (1939) we find an illustration of a strikingly similar
lamp made in brass from 18th century Ukraine (page 76).
Notice the tiers above the base, the extended servant light at the end, the
crown finial, etc. It is remarkable how many design elements in this 18th
century example are in our lamp. A likely scenario in the creation of our
lamp occurred like so:
Sometime in the late 19th or very early 20th century, one or more Jewish
immigrants from Eastern Europe to America had this lamp commissioned
from a skilled metalsmith of the New England area. From memory of “the
old country”, this metalsmith was given sketches and instructions from the
immigrant(s) to have a Synagogue Chanukah lamp made in the style that
they knew and saw every day of their lives, growing up in Poland or the
Ukraine. Motifs that have deeply religious connections such as the crown
finial (Crown of Torah), and the lions (Lions of Judah), were included and
made to be present and noticeable. However, in keeping with the latest
fashion of the times, namely Art Nouveau, this metalsmith made two
artistic choices that gives us, from solely a visual standpoint, a rather
narrow time frame of when this lamp was made, that is, 1890 to 1910. First,
are the feet. Instead of the classic, often seen “claw feet” of Eastern
European Chanukah Lamps (as shown in the Narkiss illustration for
example), here, the feet are in the shape of lobed-leaves. Working our way
up to the very top, the candlestick holders reveal themselves in the shape
of lotus flowers, with the buds just beginning to open.
Upon close inspection of the actual construction of our lamp, from the way
in which the metal was cut, bent, formed and fashioned together, to the
display of rivets under the base, it is clear this was made in America,
almost certainly the Northeastern part of the United States, and fitting in
perfectly with the aforementioned Art Nouveau-designed timeline of 1890
to 1910.
We know the terms “unique” and “one of a kind” are used much too often
in the antique marketplace (Jewish ritual art or otherwise), and when used,
tend to be a much-exaggerated point as opposed to a statement of fact. Our
lamp, which upon first viewing, appears to be so purely Eastern European,
but upon a closer, more intimate look, reveals significant elements that are
unmistakably American, this declares that our lamp is indeed “one of a
kind”. More than just an interesting curiosity, our lamp tells a story; that of
the journey and sacrifices made by Jews from Eastern Europe who came to
America to escape misery and oppression to embrace freedom and
opportunity. The design of this lamp incorporates a strong, wistful
remembrance of what was left behind, combined with the contemporary.
Our lamp would be the centerpiece of a museum exhibit detailing the
Jewish experience in America, or would fit in superbly with the most
sophisticated collections of American Judaica or Jewish Americana in