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Eight Nights of Thorne Room Wonder

Every November, the Art Institute unveils a select group of our Thorne Miniature Rooms decked out with period-appropriate holiday decor. Most of the decorated rooms feature intricate displays of miniature sweets and tableware meant to impress and delight. One room, however, could almost be overlooked if it weren’t for the tiny candleholder and curious objects scattered on the rug. This room, our California Hallway, is decorated to depict how a Jewish-American family in 1940 would observe Hanukkah, a celebration that commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem.

The story of Hanukkah begins during the second century B.C. when Judea (also known as the Land of Israel) came under control of Antiochus III, the king of Syria. During his reign, he allowed Jews to continue practicing their religion, but when his son Antiochus IV Epiphanes took over, he outlawed the Jewish religion and ordered the Jews to worship Greek gods. His army destroyed the city of Jerusalem, massacring thousands of people and defiling a sacred Jewish temple, known as the Second Temple, by erecting an altar to Zeus and sacrificing pigs within its walls.

In 166 B.C., a small group of Jews led by Judah the Maccabee mounted a rebellion and drove the Syrians out of Jerusalem within two years. Judah and his followers cleansed the Second Temple, rebuilt its altar, and located a menorah—a nine-branched candelabrum that is meant to keep burning every night. When they tried to light the menorah, they found one flask of pure oil that still bore the unbroken seal of the high priest, but it contained only enough oil to last one day. Miraculously, after filling the menorah with this oil, the flask was still full. This miracle occurred for eight days until new oil could be obtained. In commemoration of this, the sages created Hanukkah, an eight-day celebration also known as the Festival of Lights.

A specific set of rules surrounds the lighting of the menorah. The candleholder has nine branches, one for each night of the Festival of Lights, plus a shamash (meaning “helper”). The shamash is lit first and used to light the other candles; the shamash always sits a bit lower or higher than the rest of the candles to distinguish it from the others. On the first day of Hanukkah, a candle is lit with the shamash and placed in the far right position, where it is allowed to burn all the way down. On the second night, a candle is placed in the far right position again, and a new candle is added to its left. Each subsequent night, candles are added from right to left—the same direction in which Hebrew is read—but lighting moves in the opposite direction, from left to right. Menorahs are traditionally displayed in windows as a reminder of the miracle that inspired the holiday. The miniature menorah in the California Hallway currently sits on the coffee table, but next year we will place it in the foreground on a newly created side table near a window.

In addition to displaying the menorah, the room contains gifts and a dreidel, a four-sided top made of wood or plastic. Each side features a letter from the Hebrew alphabet that together form the acronym for Nes Gadol Hayah Sham, which means, “A great miracle happened there.” The game dates back to when the Syrian-Greeks ruled over Israel and forbade Jews to practice their religion. Consequently, Jewish people moved their studies underground, pulling out their dreidels and pretending to play games to confuse the soldiers. Playing dreidel during Hanukkah is symbolic of the courage of Jewish people.

Our California Hallway miniature room is a replica of a high-rise apartment located in San Francisco. Beginning in the 1920s, many Jewish people settled in neighborhoods like the Fillmore and Marina Districts. Judging by the modern decor, the original artworks displayed on the wall (notice the Fernand Léger above the couch), and the view of the Golden Gate Bridge from the terrace, it is safe to assume the owners of this penthouse lived in the Marina District, which in the 1940s was a center of au courant architecture and interior design.

Mrs. Thorne described the California Hallway interior as a "modern art gallery" and commissioned miniature paintings by several notable artists. In addition to the painting by Léger, Mrs. Thorne also commissioned an oil painting by French cubist Amédée Ozenfant—which hangs above the fireplace—and four watercolor compositions arranged on either side of the couch by another French painter, Léopold Survage. In keeping with Mrs. Thorne’s intention for this room, Lindsay Mican Morgan, the keeper of the Thorne Rooms, commissioned an artist to create the tiny menorah based on a design by the mid-century Jewish ceramicist Otto Natzler.

Hanukkah begins this year of the eve of December 24, and a visit to our Thorne Miniature Rooms is a wonderful way to celebrate your family’s traditions. The California Hallway is just one of 13 rooms decked out for the holidays, so come discover holiday traditions through the years with our festive rooms.

—Nadine Schneller, Marketing Coordinator

Mrs. James Ward Thorne. A37: California Hallway, c. 1940, about 1940. Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.