Caron Tabb spent hours in her Newton driveway torching wooden pallets and fashioning chicken wire. The work wasn’t easy — scars lining her forearms prove it. But for the 54-year-old mixed-media artist, the three-month project was well worth the effort.
Her Hanukkah menorah — 20 feet long and 8 feet tall — is now on display at the Museum of Fine Arts.
“I live my Judaism in a modern time, so I wanted to take a very sacred object and make it universal,” Tabb said. “Really talk about what I believe is my Judaism — as a woman, as an artist, as a female artist — and make it a universal piece.”
Tabb’s menorah, titled “Persist and Rise from Ashes,” consists of nine wooden poles — representing eight candles and one shamash — the taller, middle candle used to kindle the others — and fabric flames adorned with quotations from famous thinkers and writers.
Along the base, burnt wooden pallets bear one longer quotation from Jewish poet Hannah Senesh:
“There are stars whose radiance is visible on earth though they have long been extinct. There are people whose brilliance continues to light the world even though they are no longer among the living. These lights are particularly bright when the night is dark. They light the way for humankind.”
When the menorah is lit, electricity will light up the flames’ calligraphy: quotations from Nelson Mandela, Peter Yarrow, Edith Wharton, Leonard Cohen, Martin Luther King Jr., Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, William Shakespeare, Oprah Winfrey, and Sara Levi-Tanai. The shamash bears King’s famous maxim: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Tabb said she carefully selected the quotations, each with the purpose of spreading freedom, light, and equality.
“I hope people will pause and read the quotes and pick one that resonates with them, inspires them to make the world a better place,” she said.
Tabb topped nearly 20 other artists in a juried competition with the Jewish Arts Collaborative, a Newton-based arts and culture organization. Tabb’s piece was featured at the MFA’s sixth annual JArts Hanukkah Celebration on Dec. 18, and, according to an MFA spokesperson, will remain at the museum through Jan. 5.
Rabbi Marc Baker, president and CEO of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said Tabb’s work serves as a much-needed source of light amid troubling times in America.
“The world can feel pretty dark,” he said. “If there was ever a time we needed the Hanukkah message, it was now.”
Baker said he loved the diversity of quotations Tabb included. The piece is “conversational,” he said, reflecting “both the particular and the universal.”
For JArts executive director Laura Mandel, Tabb’s menorah stood out for its clear theme of resiliency.
“We thought it was so beautiful that it spoke to everyone in a very concrete way,” she said.
The competition has become a central part of the annual Hanukkah event, but it was born out of simple necessity. After years of using an electric, table-top menorah, Mandel said she and her team decided it was time for something better. And bigger.
The universality of Tabb’s artwork is both intentional and deeply personal. Tabb was born in South Africa and raised in Israel prior to moving to the United States, where she has lived since 1999.
In addition to the diversity of thinkers quoted on the menorah, Tabb said the piece’s title, “Persist and Rise from Ashes,” is about all groups who have faced persecution — not just Jews, but African-Americans, Native Americans, and others. Plus, she added, it’s a nod to Democratic presidential candidate and US Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
“We have to band together,” Tabb said. “We have to persist and resist so that we can make the world a better place.”
The Newton artist said having her work on display at the MFA is “quite a ‘pinch me’ moment.” With her Jewish faith at the foundation of her art, Tabb said she strives to share her universal truths with others.
“It’s important for me because Judaism has this meaning,” she said, pointing to the menorah, “and I really want to tell it to the world.”
Jacob Gurvis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.