The sixth annual JArts Hanukkah: The Festival of Lights takes place at the MFA on Wednesday, Dec. 18. Each year, a newly designed large-scale art hannukiah (menorah) is central to the community-lighting ceremony in the museum.

This year’s menorah, entitled “Persist and Rise From Ashes,” was designed by local artist Caron Tabb, who was born in South Africa, raised in Israel and now lives in the Boston area. JArts executive director Laura Mandel interviewed Tabb about the inception and meaning of this special hannukiah.

What inspired the piece?

The Hanukkah story emphasis is often placed on the military victory of a small army of Jews against the mighty Greeks, ending in the liberation of the Temple, finding the oil lamp and the miracle of it lasting for eight days. I find this story to be more symbolic, speaking to the true spirit of what can happen in the face of a challenge or a threat—not just a physical one but also an existential threat to values and beliefs.

We are living in extremely troubling times. Many of the core values I hold to be true are being painfully challenged and threatened daily. I view art as a platform to express a powerful voice, not only of mine, but also of others who are feeling marginalized, excluded and vulnerable. This hanukkiah is no different. The fight for justice and freedom is not ours alone. We share in this struggle with so many others who, for generations, have been fighting for the right to be equal and valued. Recognizing this shared struggle has made me consider my responsibility as a modern-day Jewish woman. The opportunity to use the ancient Hanukkah story to address these threats was very appealing and inspired the making of this larger-than-life hanukkiah. As the Israeli poet Sarah Levy-Tanya wrote:

We came to drive away the darkness         באנו חושך לגרש בידנו אור ואש
in our hands light and fire.                                  כל אחד הוא אור קטן
Everyone’s a small light,                                     וכולנו אור איתן
and all of us are a firm light.

While the intent of all hannukiot is to share the light of the season, yours has a few specific concepts behind it. Tell us about them.

In most of my art pieces, I choose the materials carefully. The material choice tells its own story and reinforces the concept behind the piece. The materials for this piece reinforce my beliefs around this holiday. The Hebrew root of the word “hanukkiah” is ״חנך״ which literally translates as “to educate or teach.” I wanted this piece to do just that; to teach both the story of Hanukkah as well as to amplify the voices of others in history who have carried the battle of freedom on their backs.

Historically, we Jews have risen from ashes many times. I wanted to pay homage to that aspect by burning the wood/candles. It reminds us that freedom is often a battle that one fights for and that a high price is paid. The flames give a nod to ancient torches, ones used by our ancestors from hilltop to hilltop to both illuminate as well as tell time and announce the Jewish holidays. The chicken wire serves as an armature for the fabric poems on the piece and allowed me to “mold” the poems into flames. It also contains the light within, projecting it outward for us to contemplate. I hope viewers will stop and read and contemplate the meaning of each, pick their favorite and try to implement it in their daily lives.

We love that you’re literally illuminating quotes in the flames. Which quotes are your personal favorites, and why?

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It’s hard to pick one, but I think my favorite is the one by Nelson Mandela: “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

He lived and died by his values and love for his people. He reminds us of the responsibility we have toward humankind, and his humility teaches us that we are never really free until we are all free, a value which truly resonates with me. I think our world desperately needs many more Mandelas.

How long did it take you to design and create it?

I always spend a lot of time mulling over and thinking about the idea, symbolisms and concepts before I approach the actual making of an art piece. I often find that the story inspires the choice of materials and their placement, and so I let this be the guide for creation. It took me a few weeks of contemplation and then about a week of playing around with sketches and designs until I came up with this one.

What was the biggest challenge in making it?

The sheer size of the piece was a challenge, but mainly trying to not get cut by chicken wire. The unfortunate end result was Caron, 0, and chicken wire, 1.

In a dream world, where would this piece go after the museum?

In my dream world, this piece would stand in the city square or the lobby of every building reminding us every day of the collective work we need to do to mend our society.

About Caron Tabb

Born in South Africa and raised in Israel, Caron Tabb moved to San Francisco in 1999 and most recently relocated to Boston. After many years in nonprofit management while dabbling in jewelry making, studying fashion and designing interiors, she fell in love with painting. She found the process of painting and making abstract art to be liberating and meaningful in a very profound way. She has studied with John Murray, Chuck Holtzman, Bob Seigelman and Kelly Knight, “who taught me not to be afraid.” This year, Tabb’s art has been part of a two-person show at The Gallery @ Mayyim Hayyim and a month-long solo show at the prestigious Beacon Gallery in SOWA.

Join us for an unforgettable evening for the entire family at the MFA on Dec. 18 from 4-10 p.m. Admission is free. The community lighting ceremony takes place at 6:30 p.m. in the Shapiro Family Courtyard. Find more information and a detailed schedule here.

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