Yente's Book of Maccabees, Minus the Menorah
The story of Hanukkah appears in the first and second books of Maccabees. According to tradition, we celebrate the victory of the Jewish rebels over the Syrian Greek army and the miracle of rededicating the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Each year we light the menorah to celebrate this miracle: the oil found to light the Temple's menorah was only enough for one night, but it lasted eight.
In 1965 Jewish Argentine artist, Eugenia Crenovich (Yente) created an illustrated Book of Maccabees, though interestingly she chose to leave the miracle of Hanukkah out of this work altogether. Yente (1905-1990) was born in Buenos Aires to a family of Jewish Russian immigrants who arrived in Argentina at the turn of the twentieth century. As one of the first female abstract artists in Argentina, she was a pioneer. She has produced hundreds of paintings, collages, sculptures, and reliefs, experimented with different materials and techniques, and even created more than 20 illustrated artist books. Her books use various techniques, styles, and themes, going from total abstraction to literal figuration to anything in between. In 1965, while in Genoa, Italy, our artist created two series of biblical collages: an artist book based on the Book of Maccabees (Macabeos) and some independent collages featuring scenes from the Book of Exodus. These were exhibited together at the Galeria Van Riel in Buenos Aires, the following year.
Unlike her other illustrated books from the 1940s, Macabeos does not introduce the illustrations with a narrative text. Instead, each of the scenes is introduced solely by a title. The cover of Macabeos has a title written with a striped fabric that resembles a prayer shawl, a frame similar to a chuppah, and arches commonly seen in title pages of traditional religious texts. Inside we find twelve abstract collages depicting the story of the Maccabees. Yente used Hebrew newspaper clippings, fabric, cotton threads, and brown wrapping paper topped with gold, red, black, and brown paint. It is a very thick work with heavy pages and layers of materials.
Yente's collage not only has multiple layers of material, but also multiple layers of meaning. It tells the story of the Jewish priests, the Maccabees, who fought against the assimilation and Hellenization of the Jewish people. Macabeos also touches on the struggle of the Jewish people for continuity. The inclusion of Mattathias and Judah Maccabee in her work shows how each generation of the Jewish people continue to fight for survival, just like her parents who struggled against assimilation. Her dedication to her grandparents and her father, who fled to Argentina to escape the pogroms in Eastern Europe, clues the reader into this theme.
While all the scenes come from the first Book of Maccabees, Yente left out the miracle we celebrate every Hanukkah. In Macabeos there is no rededication of the Temple by lighting the menorah, and no miracle of the oil lasting for eight days. Instead, the scenes in Macabeos tell a story of the persecution and destruction of the Jewish people, followed by the struggles and final redemption of an oppressed nation. Yente left the religious narrative aside. It is about a people being destroyed and the following generations fighting for their lives. In fact, one can draw comparisons between the story in Macabeos and the creation of the State of Israel as a redemption after the Holocaust.
So, where did the Hanukkah menorah go in Yente's work?
While Macabeos is not about the miracle of the oil or the menorah, this Jewish symbol appears in a collage from the Exodus series. In 1965 Yente created “Harás además un candelabro de oro puro…” Éxodo. Cap XXV-31 (You shall also make a lampstand of pure gold… Exodus 31) a collage titled after the Torah passage in which God assigns Bezalel Ben Uri as the first Jewish artist in the history of the Jewish people. Bezalel was endowed with "skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft." He was not just a craftsman, but the artist who would direct the creation of the elements for God’s sanctuary that the Jewish people would carry in the desert until their arrival in Jerusalem.
With her work, Yente chose to follow in the footsteps of Bezalel Ben Uri and pursue the most ancient Jewish artistic tradition. In doing so she relates to the religion of her ancestors and to the divine, not through the practice of lighting the menorah, but through craftsmanship and creation. Furthermore, she did not represent the menorah as described in Exodus 25, but instead chose the ancient visual edition depicted in the Arch of Titus (also the symbol of the State of Israel) again gesturing to the Jewish artistic tradition. With Macabeos, Yente followed the artistic legacy of the Jewish people by creating these collages.
Looking at Yente’s work, we can see how Jewish tradition has enlightened her oeuvre. She decided not to light the menorah symbolizing struggle and persecution, but to transform that light into artistic creation and connect to her Jewish roots.
How to cite this page
Kohn, Tamara. "Yente's Book of Maccabees, Minus the Menorah." 23 December 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on December 1, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/yentes-book-maccabees-without-menorah-0>.