BOSTON — For a city packed with history, Sunday night’s lone Hanukkah candle marked a milestone in the so-called Cradle of Liberty: the first interactive, Jewish-themed public art installation ever staged in Boston.
Working off the theme of illumination and the miracle of Hanukkah, local artists were asked to design window displays representing the minor Jewish festival, sometimes seen as the Jewish version of Christmas. Called “8 Nights, 8 Windows,” the week-long installation appears in downtown locations including restaurants, a museum and one bank.
While some windows feature overtly Jewish symbols such as menorahs and dreidels, others are more subtle in evoking the miracle of lights. In “Halfway through the Dark,” a display at the immigrant-themed West End Museum, a quiet living room scene from a generation or two ago evokes family ties and a shrinking world, strewn with newspaper clippings and magazines.
“Home spaces are always special places, but even more so in the dark and cold of winter, when even the most mundane is miraculous and extraordinary,” said artists Christian Meade and Nathaniel Wyrick in their project description.
Across town at Boomerang’s Second Edition store, the interactive “HueMenorah” uses selfies taken by onlookers to digitally depict the Hanukkah candles, asking passersby to become the project’s “source of light and life,” as explained by artists Fish McGill and Saul Baizman.
For lead event organizer Laura Mandel, the selfie-fueled display points to a central motivation for organizing “8 Nights” and the almost dozen related events and activities running throughout Hanukkah.
“Anyone who wants to is able to become a part of this menorah,” said Mandel, whose New Center NOW produced “8 Nights.” “The menorah would not exist without people stopping to share their light with others, and we reach people who would never step foot into a Jewish building,” she said.
Four years in the making, the winter-busting installation matched downtown businesses and nonprofits with artists’ conceptions of Hanukkah. Of nine artists selected by a jury to create the windows, only three are Jewish, said Mandel.
“This is the kind of collaboration through which we can break silos that exist,” said Mandel, who considers the project “part of a Boston art renaissance going on, with many Jews getting involved,” she said.
Following the city’s Chabad-led candle-lighting in Copley Square, groups of holiday-goers walked a two-mile loop connecting the just-unveiled Hanukkah displays. In the posh South End — where Boston Jewry got its gritty start more than a century ago — bright displays brought touches of Hanukkah back to the Christmas-filled neighborhood, with themes like “Luminous Miracle” and “The Coming of Light.”
Leveraging digital technology and social media, several windows feature close-ups of Jewish community members. At the kosher Milk Street Café, a large film display called “Giants of the Community” turns the faces of Boston Jews “into giant beacons communicating their Hanukkah wishes as they look out into the city,” according to artist Susannah Lawrence’s description. Working with children, young adults and seniors, Lawrence edited their portraits into a cheerful loop.
On a night when President Obama gave a televised speech about the threat of global terrorism, the Pavement coffee shop’s “We are the Shamash” display asked onlookers to be the shamash, or helper candle, in a troubled world. “Don’t be afraid” and “peace” were scrawled on several tiny lanterns, with longer, more personal messages appearing on others.
Hanukkah’s raised public profile in Boston began last year, when New Center NOW and partners hosted festivities including a light-themed opera at the Museum of Fine Arts. Simultaneously, a virtual reality art display launched the groundwork for this week’s unprecedented city-wide illuminations.
On Wednesday, the museum will host “Between Two Lands,” an audio-visual simulation “blurring the line between our physical and digital lives.” With the latest virtual reality technology, participants will “communicate between two separate realities to illuminate beacons of light, forming a giant abstract menorah,” according to installation creators Secret Portal.