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Hanukkah Exhibit: The Power of Light


Jews around the world mark the holiday of Hanukkah, which ends Friday, by lighting candles on what is called a Hanukia or Menorah. The tradition marks the Jewish defeat of the Syrians in the year 168 BC and a so-called miracle that is said to take place when the Jews returned to their Jerusalem Temple. A lamp with enough oil for one day provided light for eight days. This year, New York's Jewish Museum celebrates the power of light in a special Hanukkah exhibition.

Eight works of art to mark the eight days of Hanukkah are scattered throughout the Jewish museum. One interactive piece by New York-based artist Liz Phillips looks at the wonders of light and sound charged by motion.

As observers move around, glass beads and metal objects ring and howl. The movement also illuminates a blue neon coil and sets multi-colored neon tubes in the shape of a crooked braid aglow.

Ms. Phillips says she created the work specifically for the Hanukkah exhibition. "I always loved Hanukkah because it is about the magic of light and that is [what] a lot of my work is about, that magic between light and sound and space. The kind of magic that happens between science and a kind of concentrated, mystical experience," she says.

The artists represent several nationalities and religions but they share a common appreciation for the power of light.

French artist Julian La Verdiere is best known for helping to design the public display of two giant beams of light conjuring the image of the World Trade Center, to commemorate the six month anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Mr. La Verdiere's 1999 work, called Golden Section, is featured in the exhibit. The artist uses tiny lights to illuminate a scroll of an ancient mathematical ratio still used by architects and artists.

In another installation, a 1.5 meter square grid of bright light bulb flashes, projects a moving image of a man and creates an intense heat.

Exhibition curator Shira Brisman explains that the unconventional Hanukkah exhibit aims to turn the Jewish Museum itself into a hanukia or menorah, the device which traditionally holds candles lit by Jews during Hanukkah. "We love this idea of rather than having just one hanukia that someone looks at, transforming the entire building into a menorah by exhibiting these works of contemporary art," she says. "We have taken this idea and the association of Hanukkah with the miracle of light and it made it a contemporary experience where people can experience the light and come across the light in unexpected ways."

Ms. Brisman says that by displaying the works in hallways and unexpected locations throughout the museum, the organizers were exploring another Hanukkah theme of games or chance.

When the Jews lived under oppressive Syrian rule in the second century BC, they would pretend to play games to conceal practicing their religion and studying Jewish texts called the Torah.

Now, Jews play a game of chance called "dreidl" during Hanukkah in a ritual that also celebrates freedom of religion.

Artist Ben Schachter says that his work, called Chess, which also can be played, evokes the game-playing theme of Hanukah. "It is a chess set of light bulbs and each piece is a different shaped light bulb that represents a pawn or a rook and then the board itself is made up of outlets that the pieces plug into as you move them around," he says.

Seven of the works are exhibited inside the museum. Curator Shira Brisman says that at sundown, when many Jews in New York are lighting their Hanukkah candles, a flashing, multi-colored installation in the window next door to the museum is turned on. "There is a tradition that after someone who is celebrating Hanukkah lights a menorah they display the menorah in the windows of their homes so people walking by will see the lights to celebrate our freedom of oppression and an end of the days when religious practice was prohibited," she says. "So in this spirit we have one work that stays on and continues into the night after the museum is closed."

New York has the largest Jewish community in the United States. Ms. Brisman says that by inviting Jewish and non-Jewish artists to participate in the Hanukkah exhibit and encouraging observers of many faiths to look at the art created by light, the Jewish Museum is celebrating both the so-called miracle of light and the importance of religious freedom.

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