The author reflects on the Chanukah lights’ reflection

By Gary Rabenko

What child is not captivated by miracles and the wondrous workings of the brave Maccabees? As a child, Chanukah was my favorite holiday. For me, the candles were alive as their brilliance danced and celebrated miracles that were beyond my comprehension but just seemed like life itself.

The flames would wiggle and whirl about–struggling to stay lit–energized and determined while fighting for survival. The colder and more miserable the winter weather, the more fervently they struggled and persisted. Their liveliness touched everything! It sparkled in our eyes and created living highlights wherever we looked. Those effects were seen within the flickering reflected by painted surfaces, some brighter reflections on furniture and tableware, and, most interesting to me, the varying illumination of faces.

Those candles were never the only light around; I knew we were not to use them for light. Yet, certainly, for as long as they burned, they were the main lights that held my fascination and raised all sorts of questions.

We looked different in their light. And the candles changed, too. What they emanated changed. As they burned, some flames grew larger and brighter. But they also moved lower and made faces look different than when first lit. Compared to the light from our lightbulbs, their light was yellow. Today I know that the photographic color temperature of candle flames is much warmer than the incandescent bulbs we had then–more reddish than the common colder daylight bulbs. Back then, I just knew that we looked like we felt: golden in their glow. And for thirty minutes to an hour, we really felt golden!

As the days of Chanukah grew, gradually the candles got brighter. This we realized maybe by the sixth or seventh day. But the eighth day was not double what the seventh day was. Today I know that the biggest difference occurred between the first and second days. We would start with one candle on the first day and have double that on the second. Double the amount of light, which is the single biggest change in one day. It is similar to the math involved in measuring lighting values as a pro. It is why adding a third light of equal brightness has a lesser impact than when adding the second such light.

There was always a direction to the candlelight. It could be seen on everything and everyone. It was not just coming from every direction, but from one direction. It slimmed, shaped, or softened faces due to the directional relationship between the lit candles and the face. Things looked different, too, depending on the angle they were viewed from and how much the candle lighting mixed in with the room lighting. From some angles, things had more texture and shape. From other angles, they had less definition.

So, for me, the wonder of Chanukah came alive in everything and all around me. The lights seemed vibrant, as if each was trying to speak, to reach out and make a difference–to sculpt life with light!

Today when I am photographing children and joyous adults celebrating Chanukah, they can have that same magical quality–an enthusiasm for learning about life and the feeling that lights their way!

As for me, well, maybe I was too sensitive. At times I felt guilty because on the one hand we were supposed to look at the candles and be reminded of Hashem’s miracles, deliverances, and wonders. On the other hand, we were not to use the candles as light sources themselves. But that seemed so contradictory and confusing to me. If the room was kept bright, then the candles were not noticeable–or hardly so. I mean with both of my 1,000-watt filming lights, the white candle wax was brighter than the flames’ light around their wicks. With only one 500-watt light bounced at an opposing wall, the bright wall seen in the distance through our window stood out to the neighbors more than the one candle in the window on the first night of Chanukah. Even on the eighth day, it seemed like all eight voices were muted by the dull drone of electric illumination.

But then, when I finally listened to my parents and unplugged my toys, leaving just the bland ceiling light to burn, well, once again the inspiring glow of the candles pulled me close. At that distance, how could they not illuminate my pudgy fingers in a way that perforce shaded the parts of my hand which was turned somewhat away from the candles’ light? This taught me at an early age so much about directional light that to this day, unlike most working photographers, it is second nature to me always.

To me this was beautiful! This was nature. Light was the essence of life!

Soon after my bar mitzvah, I knew that the light from those candles would actually become geometrically stronger–meaning that at half the distance, my fingers would be a whopping four times as bright! Most photographers today are not innately aware of this, if they know it at all. Most are not fluent in the inverse square law–the essence of how a point light varies with distance and which draws us closer to our menorahs.

Reflectors and how they work–that, too, was manifest in my Chanukah experience. If the menorah was set up on the mantel and not in the window, then the quality of light was different. The light that bathed my thinning fingers as I grew older seemed to wrap around those fingers, and filled in and complemented their anatomy by rounding them more, rather than the slimming effect which the shaping light from the candles without the benefit of a large reflective background surface had given previously.

By taking time to enjoy and appreciate the wondrous light from our Chanukah candles, we can eventually learn to become more sensitive to one of the most profound forces in nature–light. We can experience so many variations in light sources and their effect. From the point light source of a lone candle before a clear window glass to the broad light of nine flames backed by the mantel, we can experience and observe the varying effects of distance, direction, intensity, color, size, position, and height. This, while marveling on life’s many mysteries–the beauty in light and the many moods it creates. In some way, light is related to time. Light is energy, and energy expended or absorbed is a function of time. Eventually the light will fade out. But where is the light that used to be?

While much of the lights of my childhood were absorbed by ceilings and walls or family and friends, the lasting value for me no doubt must be that which I had the great fortune to feel, to take note of, to observe, and to appreciate. And that love of light and truth burns brighter than ever.

Rabenko Photography & Video Arts is located at 1053 Broadway in Woodmere. To learn more, contact, 1-888-RABENKO, 888-722-3656, or visit



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