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Embrace Hanukkah through the glow of neon at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum

Four people stand and two sit on a bench in a museum exhibition that includes neon artworks glowing pink and white.
The exhibition “First Light: Rituals of Glass and Neon Art” at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco incorporates neon, photography, sound, video and more. | Source: Monica Semergiu

According to the Bible, the world began with radiance. “Let there be light,” God said, and the universe as we know it allegedly came into existence. It’s no surprise, then, that light plays a significant role in many religions—including Judaism, where illumination is a key component of ritual practice and also two new San Francisco exhibitions. 

Just in time for Hanukkah, a holiday strongly associated with candles, two new exhibitions at the Contemporary Jewish Museum examine the spirituality of light in fresh and surprising ways. 

“First Light: Rituals of Glass and Neon Art” is curated by the Bay Area organization She Bends, which amplifies the work of female and nonbinary glass benders. Pairing inspiration with education, the show places works of art alongside explanatory panels and demonstration tables that provide insight into the practices required to create them. Neon pieces dangle from the ceiling near a glass bender’s table set up with the materials used for the craft, and glowing art hangs on the wall beside an equipment table for the bombarding process that prepares tubes to be filled with gas. 

“It’s akin to ritual,” said Heidi Rabben, senior curator at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, of the intricate process required to craft neon. “It’s a very specific order of steps that must be followed in a particular way.” 

Rabben said that the She Bends team—Meryl Pataky and Kelsey Issel—tapped into something for the exhibition that hasn’t been discussed much before: the flow state that neon benders go into when plying their craft, akin to meditation.  

Many of the exhibition’s neon pieces incorporate organic elements, almost like a reminder itself that neon is natural—a noble gas that we breathe every day in small amounts. 

“These gases are invisible until manipulated in a hyper-specific way,” Rabben said. “Helium already has a color, but [the piece is] drawing attention to it.” 

One piece by Angelina Almukhametova combines tree branches with krypton-filled tubes that pulsate in real time, a response to their surrounding environment. 

“Neon serves as a prosthetic for the limbs that have broken off,” Almukhametova said. 

A clear glass bubble is attached to a white glowing neon tube and a block of carved salt.
Artist Mollie McKinley employs neon tubes, blown glass and carved salt blocks in her artworks in the exhibition "First Light: Rituals of Glass and Neon Art" at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. | Source: Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum

New York-based artist Mollie McKinley has several pieces in the exhibition, including one that uses traditional stone-carving methods to sculpt solid blocks of salt, to which she adds neon tubes and solid bubbles of glass. 

“I use materials elemental in nature to question the idea of humans’ ultimate intelligence,” McKinley said. “What happens when you give other elements agency?” 

One of the most striking pieces in the exhibition comes courtesy of Pataky. Inspired by The Key of Solomon, a Renaissance-era spell book, her neon talisman blazes on a central wall, employing neon, argon and helium and glass candelabras (one in the shape of a menorah). 

A red glowing Star of David is surrounded by symbols and a circle of pink neon light.
The exhibition "First Light: Rituals of Glass and Neon Art" includes the 2018 piece by Meryl Pataky "Invocation Through Fabrication: Key of Solomon Talisman, Success in Business/Trade." | Source: Courtesy Contemporary Jewish Museum

A second, smaller exhibition in the museum’s Yud Gallery, “Radiant Practices: Illuminating Jewish Traditions,” runs the same length as the neon show and also explores the significance of light. It does so by collecting objects associated with five Jewish rituals that center illumination, including the menorah and the Ner Tamid, or eternal flame.

While light in the Jewish tradition—as with many others—represents peace, the exhibition opens at a time when the world has been torn asunder by war. Rabben said the museum’s role as a Jewish cultural institution is to be a place of welcome for all, just as the exhibitions’ artworks emphasize the universal qualities—and organic elements—that are inherent in all of us. 

“We hope it’s uplifting for everyone,” she said of the exhibitions. “It’s such a hard time for so many in the world.” 

First Light: Rituals of Glass and Neon Art & Radiant Practices: Illuminating Jewish Traditions 

📍 Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., SF 
🗓️ Through April 8, 2024