A Festival of Many Lights

Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, symbolizes the hope that light will overcome darkness, that peace will come. Durell Godfrey Photos

    Hanukkah comes early this year, surprising almost everyone by coinciding with Thanksgiving — for the first time since 1888. The eight-day Jewish holiday takes place on the 25th day in the month of Kislev on the Hebrew calendar, falling on different days on the Gregorian calendar each year because the ancient Hebrew year (it is now 5774) has 354 rather than 365 days and even an extra month.

    In Heidi Dratel’s house in East Hampton, turkey and the trimmings will have to be bit players, for center stage is commanded by her collection of some 75 menorahs, 175 mezzuzahs, and enough dreidels to keep any group of young people busy for hours.

    Ms. Dratel is a woman with a perpetual smile and a gleam in her eye. She started her collection 50 years ago. “Every year you pick up two or three, and it adds up,” she told a recent visitor. “I used to think I had a big collection of mezzuzahs until I went to the Orthodox Synagogue in Jerusalem, where somebody had donated a collection of 3,000.”

    Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, symbolizes the hope that light will overcome darkness, that peace will come. The story is told that when the Maccabees overcame the Greeks and regained their holy temple in Jerusalem, they were able to rededicate it by miraculously burning ritual oil for eight days when there was only enough oil for one. The Hanukkah menorah is therefore different from the traditional menorah, in that it holds eight candles, with a ninth by which the others are lighted, while other menorahs hold seven candles. On Hanukkah, one candle is lit the first evening, two the second, and so on. Religiously, Hanukkah may not be significant, but, coming as it usually does between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is best known.

    Ms. Dratel’s collection has striking variety, and she thinks it must be the largest on the East End. There are elegant menorahs, whimsical menorahs, menorahs fashioned from glass, gold, brass, and pewter, multicolored menorahs, and some that are austere. They date from the 1940s to the present and originated in countries from Israel to Mexico. The collection also includes jeweled and bead-encrusted mezzuzahs and dreidels.

     She pointed out a few: a “convertible” menorah she found in New England, in which the nine movable candleholders are hollow; turned upside down they can be used as bud vases. Another large and heavy menorah was created by the well-known Israeli sculptor David Palombo, who designed the gates of the Knesset, the legislative branch of the Israeli government. Ms. Dratel noted that the Jewish Museum of New York has a magnificent collection of menorahs, including some designed by the artist andwriter Maurice Sendak and the architect Daniel Libeskind, which have recently been exhibited.

    The dreidel is a four-sided top with four different Hebrew letters on each side which stand for “A Great Miracle Happened Here.” A traditional holiday game, it is played with pieces, or tokens, such as matchsticks, pennies, or chocolate coins, which are distributed evenly to each player. Players spin the top and either put tokens into the pot or take some, according to which letter comes face up when the spinning stops.

    Mezzuzahs are not Hanukkah-related but are cases containing a tiny prayer scroll, which are placed on doorposts by the orthodox as a reminder of God’s presence.

Heidi Dratel was born in Washington, D.C., but raised in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She is amused as she recalls that her parents paid $20 a month for their apartment in what is now a fashionable and sought-after neighborhood. “After seven years, it went up to $35,” she said with a laugh. During World War II, she and her two brothers enlisted in the armed forces within four months of each other, and Ms. Dratel served in the Coast Guard.

    Her love of travel has persisted, taking her to Iceland, Greenland, Mexico, Alaska, throughout the United States, and, often, to Israel. She has collected, in addition to Judaica, pots from the Southwest, figures from Iceland and Greenland, and a large Inuit sculpture. She has bought menorahs in Israel, at the Jewish Museum in New York, as well as from catalogs such as the Source for Everything Jewish. Although she doesn’t buy them as frequently as she used to, friends and relatives still add to the collection.

    A full-time East End resident for 19 years, Ms. Dratel owes her discovery of this part of the world to her daughter, Louise Rothman, who was enjoying brunch with a lively group of friends while her mother led a tour of her collection.

     “I was visiting California in the 1970s and was impressed by the beaches,” Ms. Rothman said. “I wondered where on the East Coast we could find such a lovely, lovely beach. We never knew about the Hamptons.”

    “If you were Jewish, and especially if you lived in Brooklyn, you went to the Catskills — or Coney Island,” her mother interjected.

    Ms. Rothman first came to Montauk soon after the California trip and, along with her mother, fell in love with the area. “When people complain the beaches here are so crowded, I say, ‘Crowded? Coney Island — that was crowded.’ ”

    As her guests were leaving, Ms. Dratel offered them a platter of doughnuts, which she explained are traditional during Hanukkah. Doughnuts are cooked in oil, she said, as a reminder of the oil that lasted, miraculously, for eight days. They didn’t stay for lunch, which, also by tradition, would probably have been latkes with applesauce.

Many mezzuzahs decorate a pillar. Here are a few.
One of many bejeweled menorahs.
Heidi Dratel enjoys sitting in her living room, where bejeweled menorahs, mezzuzahs, and dreidels take center stage.
A decorative Hanukkah menorah is created in needlepoint. At left, a dreidel.
The folk-art decoration on this menorah is Mexican.
This menorah can be converted to nine bud vases.
Another bejeweled menorah.
Tulip-shaped candleholders seem to herald spring.