By RICHIE DAVIS
(Dec. 4, 2007)
A menorah is a simple thing -- just a ritual candelabra that Jews begin lighting to mark the eight nights of Hanukkah around the darkest night of the darkest month. The holiday begins at sundown tonight.
But out of simple beginnings can blossom wonderful pastimes. When Greenfield machinist Archie Nahman met a couple visiting town from Israel nearly 40 years ago, it sparked the beginning of his homemade scrap-metal menorahs that are also works of art.
Nahman's basement workspace nearly bulges like an overstuffed candy shop with containers of ball bearings, rivets, valves and metal parts from pumps, gauges and lamps -- as well as dozens of menorahs and other Judaica and sculptures he's fashioned from them.
"It's good therapy," said Nahman, who retired 10 years ago after years of working at Franklin County paper mill and machine shops.
He still considers creating the metal artworks a hobby.
Each menorah is unique, with a variety of distinctive styles, like eight with the machined brass pipes in a semicircle around a center gear that can be removed and spun like a dreidel.
Another one, which he calls his "tree of life" menorah, has its candle-holding pieces as branches on a central trunk of wood, with a Star of David at is top.
There's a menorah made from a high-speed pump impeller, a menorah from an acetylene torch, a menorah from a petcock valve, a menorah with an electric armature for its base and one with a parabolic metal bottom that reflects the candles upward and a menorah surrounded by ball bearings.
There's a series of spherical ones he's created by cutting stainless-steel spherical tank floats in half -- the bottom supported by a pedestal, holding the nine machined candle-holding pipes, with the top half as a cover.
"People don't know what these are, then they open one up and, Wow!'" says Nahman, 68, who has also turned out metal sculptures and toys on the lathe, drill press and milling machine in his garage.
"No two are alike," he says pointing to the spherical menorahs for which he's machined bronze rings so the halves fit exactly.
Nahman's own story almost rivals the miraculous Hanukkah story that's behind the menorah-lighting ritual: recalling the oil in the ransacked Jerusalem temple after the Jewish defeat of the Syrian army 2,171 years ago, that was kept lit eight days on a day's supply of oil.
Born in 1939 to Turkish refugee parents on the isle of Rhodes when it was part of Italy, Nahman was 6 months old when he and his four siblings were taken by their mother to the Belgian Congo, to which his father had already fled.
"One night, there was a knock on the door telling her to leave now and leave the house just as it was so no one would know she'd left," Nahman said. "We were on the last boat to leave before Germans came."
The family lived for two years in the Congo, where his mother had a cousin, and then moved to northern Rhodesia, where his father worked in the copper mines. When a Jewish school opened in Capetown, South Africa, he was sent to board there with his siblings, taking a four-day train ride home once or twice a year.
After he turned 17, just after the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Nahman joined the Israeli Army, spending five months on a security detail on a kibbutz, where he met his future wife, Phyllis Rubin of Turners Falls.
He returned to South Africa, but in 1962 visited the United States to reunite with Rubin.
"I never left," he said. The two were married that year, and he began working for her father's junkyard business.
Soon after, when an Israeli couple came to study at Greenfield Community College, where Ms. Nahman taught English, the Nahmans befriended them and presented them with the machinist's first handmade menorah as a Hanukkah present.
That first menorah, like most of those that have followed, was crafted from discarded metal parts, some requiring Nahman to disassemble large components. Along the way, though, he's had people bring him parts, and some he's found at flea markets.
Nahman has never gone into heavy production mode, typically making one or two menorahs a year, and rarely more than five, for family, friends and neighbors. Nearly all are machined, although for a few he's asked someone to weld the parts together.
It was friend Will Roberts, who taught folklore at GCC, who encouraged Nahman to turn his menorah making into more than an occasional hobby, and who passed his name on to the Smithsonian Institution when its annual American Folklife Festival focused on Massachusetts in 1988.
"I got a call from the Smithsonian, and they wanted to interview me and see my work," said the curly gray-haired artist, with rectangular wire-rimmed glasses and a smile to match the glow of his colorful Hannukah candles. They were impressed enough with his work that Nahman was invited to bring half a dozen samples down to Washington, D.C., for the July festival, where he demonstrated and talked about his craft.
"That's what really started things going," said Nahman, who has since been asked to demonstrate and exhibit at the Holyoke and North Adams heritage parks as well as Lowell Folklife Festival, the Springfield Museum of Science and Smith College's Neilson Library.
The self-taught artist has also exhibited at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, and at the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago.
Nahman, who also has a collection of mezuzas, ritual spice boxes, Sabbath candle holders and other Judaica, has also done menorah-making workshops for children in Lowell, Amherst and other communities -- most recently Greenfield's Temple Israel, where more than 35 young people registered to glue his assorted metal parts onto small wooden platforms.
"It's a simple thing to do, and kids really love them," said Nahman. "I put out trays of machine parts, and kids make what they want. It's incredible the imagination these kids have and what they come up with."
At the Lowell Folklife Festival, he said, kids who weren't Jewish and had never seen a menorah came to Saturday's workshop and again to one on Sunday to make Advent menorahs.
At home, Nahman enjoys inviting maybe eight or 10 people over to celebrate Hanukkah and lets each person choose his or her own menorah to light together.
"The living room table is covered with menorahs," Nahman said. "It's a tradition in our family."
Although Nahman has sold a few of his menorahs through galleries, he said he has no interest in mass-producing them to meet the demands of shops and doesn't particularly enjoy promoting himself.
"I enjoy making it," says the machinist turned artist, who's made Shabbat candlestick holders for each of his four grandchildren and plans to make a menorah when the first of them has her bat mitzvah next year. "This is going to be my kids' legacy, I think. There are only so many you can put in the house."