From dinosaurs to precious heirlooms, Sonoma County menorahs come in all shapes and sizes

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They can be sacred family heirlooms or fine works of art; factory made for functionality or simply hilarious. The Hanukkah menorah is a shape-shifting holiday lamp of limitless variation. It can be lit by oil, candles, AC current or batteries. As long as there are holders for eight candles or lights, the lights are level or on an even slant, and there’s an additional holder for the shamash — the candle that lights the other candles for each night of Hanukkah — it’s kosher.

Peek into any Jewish home after sunset during the Festival of Lights ­— which begins this year at sunset on Sunday — and you never know what kind of menorah will be flickering in celebration. It could be ultra modern or Old World, beautifully crafted or cobbled together, serious or silly. It could be made out of brass, silver, art glass, ceramic, wood or pretty much anything. staged a poll for most funny homemade menorah, with the top crowd pleaser being a lineup of Pez dispensers. But other close contenders range from a plumber’s pipe to a careful arrangement of bowling pins. If you can imagine it, it can be a menorah.

Consider Howard Gilman. In 2008, the Santa Rosa theater consultant found himself stuck on a swampy construction site in Macau, doing testing and inspections. It was Hanukkah and he had no menorah.

"You start by remembering what every Jewish kid learned at Hebrew School when they were toddlers: how to glue some nuts onto a strip of wood to make a menorah,” he said.

Gilman offered to trade work to some Australians for scrap angle iron and 8 millimeter nuts that had been left behind by a British rigging company and set to work.

“Then you draw a little sketch and give the parts to the French-Canadian stage lift manufacturer. They have a Chinese welder put them all together for you. It doesn’t look like much, but it will get the job done,” he explained. “Then on your one day off that month you take the ferry to Hong Kong and go the JCC to pick up some candles, dreidels and a yarmulke. When you get back to Macau you invite everyone who helped to come light the candles with you. You tell the story of Hanukkah, say the blessings and enjoy a little moment of international cooperation. Then, if you’re really smart, when you get home to America you put that story in your J-Date (Jewish online dating site) profile and hope that someone will be intrigued. And that’s how I met my wife, and she’s why I moved to Santa Rosa.”

Gilman said even though the two now have many menorahs, some of them beautiful heirlooms, they never fail to light that “grungy scrap parts one” each year.

The menorah is a central feature of Hanukkah, an eight-day festival commemorating the reclamation of the temple after the historic victory of the Maccabees over the army of Antiochus IV. It marks the miracle of the oil, when a tiny cruse of oil that should have lasted only a day, miraculously lasted for eight nights.

The candelabra used during Hanukkah is technically called a Hanukiah, and has nine holders compared to the seven found on a typical temple menorah.

Having a collection of menorahs isn’t uncommon for many Jewish families.

Nina Bonos, a Santa Rosa artist who specialize in both Wine Country landscapes and Judaica art, has several.

She is deeply drawn to the symbolism around her faith, from pomegranates and The Tree of Life to the Magen David or Star of David.

Her home is filled with her joyful watercolor paintings and mixed media collages with a light and contemporary feel.

She keeps a cabinet filled with mementos, little heirlooms and collectibles related to her Jewish heritage. And among her treasures are several menorahs.

There is the silver menorah that she grew up with, the one her parents lit every Hanukkah, going back well more than 60 years.

She also cherishes a tiny menorah that she got when she was in college, serving an internship in Washington, D.C. She bought it during a visit to the U.N. in New York, and that became the menorah she used through her school years and early life living in apartments. Made in Israel, the petite candelabra uses birthday candles. One of her favorites is a brass menorah where the candles are held aloft by Klezmer dancers.

“It just looks really happy,” she said.

This year she’s adding a new piece to the collection, a handthrown ceramic oil lamp made by her friend, potter Caryn Fried of Santa Rosa.

The traditions of her faith are important to Bonos, whose mother fled Berlin in Nazi Germany in 1936.

She loves the joy that the menorah light brings in the gathering darkness of winter.

“Hanukkah brings light into the darkness,” she said. “It’s always warmth and it’s always family.”

Not all Menorahs are pressed into service. Walter Byck keeps his stunning silver menorah in on honored place on a shelf, along with photos of his family. But he has never lit it. It’s an old oil lamp, and he doesn’t know how.

The 87-year-old retired physician and founder of Santa Rosa’s Paradise Ridge Winery, inherited the heirloom from his grandmother, Sonia, who brought it with her from Europe in 1890. His grandparents fled Ukraine in 1890 when Byck’s grandfather was inducted into the Army, a virtual death sentence at the time.

Byck went through his bar mitzvah at 13 but he said his family wasn’t very devout, and barely celebrated Hanukkah. “We were just ethnically Jewish ... I was raised in a family that didn’t know where the synagogue was,” he said.

But he does regard his menorah as a family treasure, an object that connects him to his ancestors and family roots in a small town outside Kiev.

“The musical ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ tells the story of a similar town and a similar fate,’” said Byck, who brought it with him to Santa Rosa when he moved here in 1965. “It’s sort of an interesting evidence of my Jewishness,” said Byck, who is non-religious. “But it’s one of the only things I can think of that I have from my grandmother.”

Some people gravitate toward menorahs that reflect an interest or their personality.

Luann Udell said she bought the perfect menorah for her daughter several years ago on Etsy — a tyrannosaurus rex, carrying eight candles on his back and the shamash on top of his flat head.

She admits that she and her husband, who is “half Catholic and half Jewish,” celebrated everything, but lit their menorah “only haphazardly” while their kids were growing up.

“We did light a menorah. But we were eclectic and kind of lazy and lax,” she admitted.

The whole family was always drawn to science fiction, fantasy and movies. So a dinosaur seemed to hit the right chord for her daughter, Robin, a social worker, who is now 30 and awaiting her first child.

She said the gift was a “tongue in cheek” but not mocking way, of saying “this was your background.”

Menorahs can be treasured reminders of significant life events.

For Ira Lowenthal, the menorah his son, Paul, pulled out of the ashes of last year’s firestorm, provided an inspiring reminder that “life goes on.”

Santa Rosa’s assistant fire marshal, Paul Lowenthal, lost his own house in the Tubbs fire.

“When Paul was searching through the remnants of his home, it was found among the rubble,” his father said of the piece, which they believe is one Paul, now 40, received from family friends for his bar mitzvah.

It’s a little worse for its trial by fire. Half of its branches were seared away as well as half its base. But Lowenthal jerry-rigged some replacements from another menorah.

“I didn’t want it to look good. I didn’t want it to look new. I wanted it to be functional,” the elder Lowenthal said.

The sad menorah promoted some family jokes about Hanukkah being cut short. But Ira Lowenthal said it’s all very bittersweet.

“It’s one of the few things,” he said, “that survived.”

Staff Writer Meg McConahey can be reached at or 707-521-5204.

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