Nostalgia Sunday – Pal-Bell & other menorahs

December 2, 2012 - 1:03 AM by

When I was growing up, lighting candles on Hanukkah was always a major event with each child assigned their own menorah to light. Prominent among the collection of traditional branch candelabras was a brass menorah of a different design: a tall single-handled jar flanked by a double olive branch and surrounded by a semicircle of oil burning lamps. Into these we would shove wax candles.

But up until now, I did not realize the “olive branch” menorah’s provenance as one of the most popular designs to come out of the Pal-Bell workshop, which produced some of the most important Israeliana of the pre-State and early Satehood periods.

Pal-Bell was founded by Hungarian-born designer and sculptor Maurice Ascalon (1913–2003) who came to pre-State Israel in 1934 after formal artistic training in Brussels and Milan. According to Wikipedia, “In the late 1930s, Ascalon founded an Israeli decorative arts manufacturing company, Pal-Bell, which produced trademark bronze and brass menorahs and other Judaic and secular decorative art and functional items that were exported in large numbers worldwide.

“Maurice Ascalon’s well-recognized designs, some art deco, others more traditional, introduced the use of a deliberate, chemically induced green patina (verdigris) to Israeli metalwork, which is now a hallmark of Israel’s crafts industry.”

“During Israel’s War for Independence in 1948, Maurice designed munitions for the Israeli Army and, at the request of the Israeli government, retrofitted his factory to produce munitions for the war effort.”

According to the official Pal-Bell website, the company’s products “were a favorite of tourists visiting Israel, especially during the early 1950s, which saw the company’s height of production. Pal-Bell also exported a large quantity of its items worldwide, primarily to the United States and Britain, where they were sold in retail stores. Pal-Bell’s two factories, located on the outskirts of Tel-Aviv, towards Jaffa, employed as many as 100 people.”

“In 1948, during Israel’s War for Independence, in order to assist Israel’s efforts, Ascalon re-tooled the factories to manufacture munitions and bomb detonators for Israel’s armed forces.”

“In 1956, Maurice Ascalon relocated his family to the United States, where he co-founded Ascalon Studios, an art and design studio specializing in worship spaces and public sculpture. In February 2003, Ascalon celebrated his 90th birthday in Curnavaca, Mexico, where he had resided for the past several years. In August 2003, after a full life, Ascalon passed away as a result of complications after a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease.”

“Today, Pal-Bell originals are highly valued collectables among Judaica, metalware and tobacciana enthusiasts.” (The top three photos are of Pal-Bell and Maurice Ascalon).

Items by Pal-Bell and other workshops will be put on display this week at the Eretz Israel Museum, as part of an exhibition called “Judaica artifacts produced in Eretz Israel, 1880-1967″. The exhibit deals with “the development of local Israeli culture, the changes made by the waves of immigration and their impact on the shape and symbolism of the Judaica artifacts; the renewed ties of the people with its land; the creation of the new Jew, the halutz and the sabra, in contrast with the atmosphere of the Diaspora.”

The exhibit has homemade Hanukkah menorahs fashioned from gun butts and bullets, and brave soldiers made of brass. Though not as sophisticated as Pal-Bell products, these Hebrew Judaica artifacts are charming and, as curator Nitza Baharuzi Baroz writes, “relate to the landscape of the homeland, biblical topics and figures of heroes as a symbol of heroism and national pride such as the Maccabees.”

Some can also still be purchased — perhaps even in time for Hanukkah next week — not new but used on eBay.

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