The public candle-lightings organised by Chabad are now a fixed part of the seasonal calendar. But where do the giant metal menorahs come from? And where do they go for the rest of the year?
Most of the menorahs used in the UK are bought in from America. But not in Essex. There, the only American menorahs are small ones, put up in supermarkets. The rest are designed and made by Alan Grant of Gants Hill, in a labour of love that has its roots in his early childhood.
In the early 1960s, his family were living in a council house in Stamford Hill. When his father was badly injured in a road accident, his mother struggled to feed her four children. Chabad Lubavitch stepped in.
“We’re going back a long time, and social support wasn’t what it is now,” Alan, now 60, recalls. “Lubavitch came round with food and help. They saved us, and they never asked for anything back.”
So now Alan, a metalworker who has worked “everywhere from Buckingham Palace downwards” (at the Palace he made some brackets for wall lights , and at Kensington Palace some washers for a bath) has quietly paid back Chabad’s kindness by creating their menorahs.
“They asked for volunteers and I put my hand up,” he says. Before his involvement, putting up the Gants Hill roundabout menorah needed a crane to lift it in place. He designed one six metres high and three metres wide, from stainless steel, which he had laser cut.
At first the installation was “an absolute nightmare.” Rabbis, he says aren’t greatly suited to practical tasks. Was it a case of how many rabbis does it take to screw in a light bulb? “Seventeen ideas, and all arguing about which is the best one.” Now his menorahs are designed for easy assembly, and are put up by him and his son, Hadley, 15, a pupil at Hasmonean High School.
In the summer months they are kept in storage in Harlow, Essex, and as Chanukah approaches, father and son pick them up and bring them to their workshop, where they are checked and any maintenance work is done. Meanwhile Rabbi Aryeh Sufrin MBE, Executive Director of Chabad for North East London & Essex, has meetings with the local council to get health and safety clearance.
There was nothing like this level of preparation or bureaucracy when Rabbi Sufrin’s father organised the first giant menorah in the UK, at Gants Hill roundabout 35 years ago. Then, some Jews were anxious about being too visible. Now it’s an accepted part of the season’s festivities.
And, although the prevailing narrative of Essex Jewry is generally one of decline, the candle-lightings tell a different story. From Gants Hill they have spread onward and outward…Buckhurst Hill, Chigwell, Loughton, Fullwell Cross, Barkingside, Epping and, this year, Woodford.
The menorah in Fullwell Cross — a particularly beautiful one — has a poignant story. It was designed by Rabbi Moshe Muller, who co-ordinated all the candle-lightings in the area. But tragically he died, aged just 43, in May 2016, before he could see it. When it was first used, the following December, it was dedicated to his memory. Now Alan Grant makes sure the rabbi’s children are involved in putting the menorah up every year.
It’s a busy time for him, but a rewarding one. This year he was asked to help with the Chabad menorah in Trafalgar Square, “but I only had time for that or Gants Hill, and I chose Gants Hill.” And when he drives past and sees the lights twinkling from its branches, he feels great pride. “There’s a sense of achievement. And it’s outlasted the Christmas tree too!”