A Handmade Holiday

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Some of the very best gifts out there are the ones you make yourself – or by local artisans.

From scrumptious donuts to chocolate menorahs, there are several ways people can celebrate the eight crazy nights of Chanukah. 
 
Local artists like Jennifer Wankoff, Joy Stember and Rivkah Walton make Judaica memorabilia, while Federal Donuts and Michel Cluizel Chocolatrium provide tasty sweets. Several Jewish day schools also participate in educating children about the holiday. 
 
Wankoff, who teaches at Main Line Art Center, Perkins Center for the Arts, The Clay Studio and owns Jennifer Wankoff Ceramics in Roxborough, begins building her holiday inventory in the summer. 
 
She makes dreidels and menorahs using a pottery wheel and hand-built components that are assembled. They are then hand-carved, painted, glazed and fired in an electric kiln. 
 
“I enjoy the challenge of making these pieces function — the dreidels spin well and have well-marked Hebrew lettering so they function well in the game of dreidel and are aesthetically pleasing,” Wankoff said. “Decorating them with layers of glaze is fun for me as well. 
 
“For the menorahs, I like referencing the history of the Chanukah lamp as a hanging oil lamp object with a high back. I enjoy carving window designs on the high back and decorating with glaze but have also enjoyed the process of designing their function — the candle holder parts, making press molds to create the candle holder parts.” 
 
Stember, who runs Joy Stember Metal Arts Studio in Abington said things get crazy around Chanukah.  
 
In August, orders start pouring in for menorahs, dreidels and other Judaica memorabilia. Everything is handmade, starting out as sheet metal before being soldered together. 
 
For Stember, building dreidels and menorahs is very time-consuming. A dreidel can take between an hour and eight hours; a menorah, up to two days. 
 
“Each piece is made for the individual,” she said. “Making something out of metal is much more of a challenge than with clay. You have to be pretty sure of what you’re doing.” 
Menorahs cost about $250 and dreidels cost $90 to $250. 
 
Walton explained she enjoys making menorahs because it “expresses the underlying spiritual meaning through the piece’s form or function for the ritual for which it is to be used.”
 
She created a balancing menorah, made of brass and acrylic, which resembles ancient navigational instruments like astrolabes. The frame goes increasingly out of balance each of the first four days of the holiday, begins to return on the fifth and is only in full balance on the eighth night — when light has begun to return to the Earth.
 
Walton told the Jewish Exponent that most Jewish holidays have both agrarian and historical roots. She said many people associate Chanukah with the Maccabees, but the Earth-based portion is often overlooked. Chanukah falls over the new moon closest to the winter solstice — the time when the least light is reaching the Earth in the northern hemisphere. 
 
“With the world plunged into darkness, how frightening a time this must have been for our ancient ancestors,” Walton exclaimed. “It is no accident that almost every culture in this half of the world starts lighting flames at this time of year.”
Menorahs and dreidels at the Mud Room in Ardmore range from $14 to $25. Someone can design it, paint the item, leave it there to be glazed and fired, and pick it up in less than a week.
Andrea Tirnauer, owner of the Mud Room, said parents and children enjoy making things together and kids love to be creative and get messy. 
 
“Painting pottery lends to both of those areas,” she said. “The other positive part of the project is what feelings the kids and families share when they bring the menorah out and light the candles year after year.”
 
The Mud Room is partnering with about 60 kids with a youth group from Lower Merion Synagogue, where they will be doing a hot chocolate mug-painting project.
 
In the past, the Mud Room has worked with several of the Main Line synagogues and helped with youth groups, Chanukah parties and added family activities to Friday evening services. This past spring, it worked closely with the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Greater Philadelphia to prepare flower vases for Holocaust victims.  
 
“As you can see, the bigger picture is much more than painting pottery as an art project,” Tirnauer said. “The pieces both made and received will hold a special place in many hearts and that is what means the most to me.”
 
Jacques Dahan, president of Michel Cluziel in West Berlin, N.J., said the companies’ new 3-D chocolate menorah is already a big hit. So far, 600 have been ordered, but it can take up to an hour to make one because of the intricacy of the meringue candles.  
 
“This one is really beautiful,” Zahan said. 
 
The menorah, which is kosher and pareve, has an interesting backstory, Dahan explained. When his family moved to America 20 years ago from France, his children attended Kellman Brown Academy in Voorhees Township, N.J., and he and his wife, Laura, made chocolate menorahs for the teachers.   
 
The confections became a big hit not just in the community, but nationwide. The issue was making the candles removable. His creative mind kept churning and last year, he asked a friend in France to design an even better menorah. 
 
“We didn’t realize all the changes that we needed to do as well as preparing everything,” Dahan said. “Sometimes people don’t realize it takes a lot of time to make.”
 
One of the most acclaimed dounut shops in Philly will have delicious treats for the holiday. Federal Donuts chef Matthew Fein explained that traditional sufganiyot are yeast-raised donuts, filled with grape jelly and covered in powdered sugar. However, since Federal Donuts doesn’t make those, it wanted to find a fun way to offer a version of sufganiyot using their spiced cake donuts. 
 
“Being that we try to do things out of the norm, we decided to dip the donuts in honey, rather than cover them in powdered sugar, and we used a very high-quality raspberry jam instead of the traditional grape jelly,” Fein said. 
 
At Perelman Jewish Day School’s Forman Center in Melrose Park, students make various types of menorahs, integrating art, science, engineering and Jewish studies. 
 
In the younger grades, students make a symbolic chanukiah — one that is not functional. In Jewish Studies class, children learn what it means for a menorah to be considered kosher. They create papier mâché chanukiyot from the tops of egg cartons, using Popsicle sticks for candles. 
 
Third-graders integrate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math) curriculum into the design process. Students create a menorah using recycled bottles, aluminum tins, plastic trays and cups, battery-operated lights, pipes, tubing and other materials. 
 
In fourth grade, they learn about texture and start with a wood base and use a crinkled tissue paper technique with paint and oil pastels to create their chanukiyot. Fifth-graders work with clay to create their own special designs.  
 
At Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in Bryn Mawr, highlights of the Chanukah celebration include daily candle lightings and an assembly led by student leaders, who are known as the JLI (Jewish Leadership Initiative). 
 
“With six school days this year, we may also try something new involving dedicating each of the six days to each one of our six derech eretz pledge values of honor, honesty, humility, community, fellowship and modesty,” said Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston, director of Jewish Studies at the school. 
 
“We will connect themes in the Chanukah story and celebration to themes in the six derech eretz values.” 
 
At Temple Judea preschool in Furlong, there is a school-wide gathering, where family members are invited to hear the children sing Chanukah songs and the staff performs a play telling the story of Chanukah. This is followed by lunch with latkes, jelly donuts and gelt.
 
“We love when we are actually in school during the holiday, as we will be this year, rather than the holiday coinciding with our winter break,” said Preschool director Sheryl Milstein.  
 
Throughout the week, a menorah is lit in every classroom each morning, giving the children a chance to hear the prayers. Some of the children learn about making oil from olives and have a chance to give it a try. A couple of weeks before the holiday, the Parent Association also holds a Chanukah Secret Shop. 
 
“I love the fact that in this small way, the children are beginning to learn to give and not just to receive,” Milstein said. “Although we know that Chanukah is certainly not the most important holiday on the calendar, to preschoolers, it would be hard to find something to top it.” 
 
Contact: jcohen@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0747

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