Book Review: The Menorah, by Dr. Steven Fine
On a class trip to the Jerusalem exhibit currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a middle aged Orthodox Jew from Teaneck gets excited when he finds out Dr. Fine is in the museum. The man buys a copy of the book, approaches Dr. Fine and asks him politely to sign the book. Dr. Fine smiles and graciously writes the man a message in Hebrew before signing his own Hebrew name Shimon. Smiling he now turns exclaims, “who would have thought that Steven from San Diego, California would have his book in the gift shop at the Met? Who would have thought that Steven would be giving a lecture at the Met on December 15th?”
The Menorah: From the Bible to Modern Israel by YU’s very own Dr. Steven Fine gives a very rich and detailed history of this majestic religious artifact from the seemingly unfinished description given in p’sukim of the Torah, to the Menorah of the Arch of Titus, emerging as national emblem of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. It was recently published by Harvard University Press in November.
By exploring many artifacts and a vast body of texts, The Menorah, captures the extensive history of the Menorah that was once lit in the Beit Ha’Mikdash and its exile to Rome. Also explored are the intriguing discoveries that a Menorah figure served a lamp that illuminated synagogues for a thousand years after the destruction of the second Beit Ha’Mikdash, and the evolution of the Menorah as a symbol for the return of the Jews to Israel and establishment of the state of Israel after a long and painful exile.
As one might expect, this academic book will occasionally drift into dense prose containing often unfamiliar and intimidating capitalized terms. Do not be discouraged, the book is not strictly a fact-finding mission, and a motivated reader should be able to power through these pages with a decent understanding of its main ideas. An unmotivated reader can skip to the next page which most likely has a marvelous picture of a Menorah and resume reading from there. Absolute continuity is not essential to enjoy and understand the book.
An example that comes to mind is a beautiful midrash that is quoted in The Menorah. According to the Midrash, Moshe was initially unable to construct the Menorah. He was given the vision and image at Mount Sinai but he lacked the artistic craftsmanship to realize God's vision of the Menorah. However, together with Betzallel, who was a talented craftsman, the two were able to construct the first Menorah. These types of passages appear throughout the book and serve as the rhyme that complement the historical reason.
While reading The Menorah, specifically the sections that detail the symbolism of the Menorah, you can discern a special love for Israel and inspiring sense of Jewish pride that is not prevalent in today’s generation and is unique to people of an earlier time.
It is an apolitical Zionism if you may, that can only belong to somebody old enough to experience the fear that preempted the Six Day War, and the times when the state of Israel was at constant war for its survival and celebrate in the jubilation that followed after Israel’s victory. This is a Zionism and pride for which the existence of a state of Israel is a miracle unto itself.
When interviewing Dr. Fine, he spoke of the Israel of his childhood that was constantly fighting for its survival and a Menorah that was not merely a symbol of the Hanukkah holiday and Hallmark cards, but rather a reminder of the constant threat that the state of Israel faced. He remembers his mother with her head listening closely to the radio during the Six-Day War, the days at his synagogue in San Diego when everyone would gather and pray with the with a menorah lamp shining at the front of the synagogue.
A substantial section in the book is dedicated to delegitimizing in great detail the myth of the existence of a Menorah currently in the Vatican. In a personal interview, Dr. Fine explicitly stated that there is no Menorah from the Beit Ha’Mikdash in the Vatican or any other place, and that there was never any historical evidence to believe such claims.When I asked him why it was necessary to dedicate time in his book to disquiet these unsubstantiated claims, and why he felt it was an important section to have in his book, he drew upon the recent shooting at Comet Ping Pong in Washington DC. A person brought a gun into a pizza store because of an unfounded conspiracy that was freely published online, leading to disastrous consequences. Similarly, it is important that we understand that there is no Menorah in the Vatican and there is no Menorah buried in Jerusalem, because we cannot predict the negative consequences that these unsubstantiated claims can have on real people.
For Steven Fine, The Menorah began as a 12th grade AP Art History Essay in San Diego California, yet it took a career as a historian to cultivate the language skills and understanding of artifacts to complete the work. This book is the life of a scholar. Perhaps the audience for this book is more appropriate for museum-goers than people looking for a page turner to take on their tropical excursion from the New York winter. Yet, any educated and curious person can surely appreciate this book that is filled with plenty of important and intriguing content and stunning pictures.