How to Carve a Menorah

by David Miller Dec 2, 2013
Raw material

Cutting cantonera. All photos by Lau Bernhein

Start cutting an old fenceboard. (Down here in Patagonia they call it cantonera, rough cut Douglas fir.)

Don’t bear down on the saw. Feel the saw-teeth doing the work.

Cut through the first inch of wood. Think about names. Pino Oregón. It’s not really pine. It’s not really a fir either.

Keep sawing as your daughter comes over. Don’t let her feet get too close to the blade.

We’re making a menorah. Si! Una menorah.

Is it masculine or feminine?

Carving I

Pull out the steel file. Sharpen your chisel.

Don’t get too close baby, I don’t want this metal to get in your watermelon.

Chisel out the wood. Collect the shavings as tinder. Visualize them starting tonight’s fire.

Let the form suggest itself. Leave one part higher for the shamas.¹ Think about this in the context of symbols.

Feel some long familiar emotion at the thought of one thing being above everything else.

Leave some bark, some reminder of origins. Notice how the form becomes boat-like, a craft, something with a hull, a planing surface, something that can float and carve. Imagine the lit menorah running a small cascade and staying upright without any candles going out.

Taking a break

Say hola to Adela across the fence. Stop chiseling. (Down here projects always stop for neighbors.)

Yeah, the tomatoes are really growing. Have I been sacando los brotes? No? Of course. Pasá. Layla, can you open the gate for Adela?

Bend down with her over the tomatoes. Watch her hands.

These branches that don’t have flowers quita la fuerza. Pick them off. This one’s really thick. Do you have a knife? These leaves are quemadas. When you water the plants just water the raices. Now you’re getting it. All the ones that don’t have flowers.

Move to the beds.

Yeah everything’s all packed together. Layla helped me with the seeds.

Watch her pull out the kale and transplant it in an open space. Imitate her hands.

There. Pack it in tight so it doesn’t dry out. These weeds need to come out too. See here? This one’s good though. It’s called 7 veins. Es diuretico.

Working in garden

Tell the girls you’re making another bed for the vegetable garden. Saw four more pieces of cantonera. Shovel out the grass in the yard. Borrow the wheelbarrow from Carolina. Pass by the wood-chips from the menorah.

Fill up the first load of tierra negra. Look for worms. Think about how it’s just piled here on the corner. Good for making jumps. Think about people claiming dirt. Think about worms. Everyone’s inside for siesta but the gringo.

Dump the first load. Notice insects rising out of the spilled dirt.

The kale transplanted with Adela looks dried up already. Water it.

Get four more wheelbarrow loads. Smooth the dirt with your hands.

Finish transplanting the lettuce and kale. Tell Layla you need help.

Carving II

Go back to the menorah. Keep chiseling. Make it more boatlike.

Re-saw the bow and stern. Asymmetrical is fine. Ignore passing thoughts that juxtapose perfect angles and concentration camps.

Stay focused on the chisel point, right where the wood curls away. When you take your eyes off the point you hammer your thumb.


Start sanding. Take down any sharp edges. Go with the grain.

Think about how sanding makes it look more water-like. Realize this was maybe the form you saw in your head. Driftwood. Can something be a boat if it isn’t piloted?

Look at the new vegetable bed in the sun: all the leaves flat on the ground, desiccated.


Line out your holes. Where’s the tape measure?

Amor, have you seen it? The cinta?

Remember then that you let Adela borrow it. Don’t ask for it back. Just start drilling.

This is gonna be loud nena. Yeah, go inside for a second. Shake your head at trying to drill wood with a masonry bit. Keep hogging out the holes.


Remember that you can always sand more. Find a place to stop that feels good enough.

Finish it with oil. Something from the kitchen, linseed or olive oil. Something that feels good on your skin. Let your daughter hold the brush some. Finish it together.

Oil right over the grass stains. The goal isn’t hiding the story.

Lighting instructions

Light at sundown after going to the river and swimming with your daughter.

Tell her the story of a temple getting destroyed and then having enough lamplight to start fixing it.

Don’t worry if it’s a new story. Kids understand needing light.

Talk about the language of the people back then. Sing some of it if you remember. Light the shamas. Let your daughter hold it too. Light from right to left.

After dinner light the backyard fire. Use the shavings from the menorah.

Don’t get too close nena. See how easy it lights?

Inventing new ceremonies

Go back out and sit with the fire after everyone goes to bed. Look at stars and satellites. The Southern Cross over where the Ruta 40 climbs out of the valley.

Listen to the smoldering coals. Visualize the earth as round and the stars surrounding it on all sides so that you’re not just seeing them as above but in all different directions including down.

Notice the garden in the lights from the house. The plants in the new bed starting to rise.

¹candle used to light other candles in a menorah, and always stands tallest. Also the word my dad used to use for the temple’s janitor.

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