Mondo Menorah! Menorahmobile Models Measured

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA

Grand Menorah Parade lineup, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

The speaker [I’m afraid I was moving too fast to get any names] is a genial, middle-aged man leaning up against a plain white passenger van that sports a glorious gold-painted menorah on its roof. Across the middle of the piece is a placard with stenciled letters: Happy Chanukah. The ornament is clearly custom-crafted and has sibling menorahs of the same exact design on dozens of other vehicles across the lot.

man posing in front of white van with rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Do you want to know the secret? My brother made all of those.”

When you start ogling menorahmobiles–vehicles decorated with oversize ornamental electric menorahs for the Jewish holiday of Chanukah–you’ll find there are four basic models, distributed in roughly equal proportions.

There’s the plastic, light-up magnetic roof-topper made by Magnet Menorah. It basically looks like a similar-sized adjunct to the delivery car for a corporate pizza chain, only it’s got the image of nine candles, a phalanx of dreidels, a pile of gelt (gold coins), and the scrolled text Happy Chanukah in place of the Domino’s or Pizza Hut logo. This one may satisfy obligations–and is certainly convenient with minimums of both muss and fuss–but it’s got no soul. I was told “Those don’t count” by one, and even as both novice and outsider, I have to agree.

car with plastic rooftop menorah, Pittsburgh, PA

“Those don’t count.” magnet menorah by Magnet Menorah

Also commercially available is the competing, stainless steel model from CarMenorah.com. It features the eight daily Chanukah candles (each a separate, switchable LED light), four angled outward in one direction and four in the other, plus the tall center shamash. This design doesn’t have the convenient magnets, but it’s mounted to a roof-spanning bar that lashes discreetly for a nice tight side-to-side presentation. CarMenorahs come with one of a few optional professionally-printed wrapper-bases with messages like Happy Chanukah and Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah.

Simply by virtue of its choice in materials, CarMenorah’s design looks a lot nicer than the light-up plastic taxi topper offered by Magnet Menorah, but it still lacks any real individuality.

car with rooftop menorah reading "Chabad wishes you a happy Chanukah", Pittsburgh, PA

Stainless steel and LED CarMenorah.com design

Once you get past these mail-order, pre-fab car menorahs, we get to the good stuff.

Many vehicles feature menorahs with the same overall design as the CarMenorah piece, but built of wood on a 2×4 base rather than pre-assembled stainless steel. The more up-to-date of these include switchable LED lights; others had old-school tiny incandescent bulbs. Each set seems to have included a good-sized blank white board with room enough for the family to create their own custom messages across each side. Many simply pulled out the stencils and colored-in Happy Chanukah, but we also saw the additions of floral artwork, 8 Great Nights, and one pan of frying latkes.

Two cars with rooftop menorahs and home made "Happy Chanukah" signs, Pittsburgh, PA

Wooden menorahs make for 8 great nights!

lit rooftop menorah with homemade "Happy Chanukah" sign featuring frying latkes, Pittsburgh, PA

Thanks a latke, menorahmobile!

Finally, there is a particularly unique-to-Pittsburgh design that stands (literally) above all other car menorahs. Constructed of stout PVC pipe, spaced and jointed at 45-degree angles, and connected to a base spanning the width of the roof of a car, these menorahs extend probably 30 inches off the vehicle’s roof. A switch array connects the nine candle lights to the vehicle’s cigarette lighter. These menorahs become glorious headdresses to the otherwise plain Maximas and Odysseys they adorn.

Aside from the clever ingenuity of these materials, the PVC menorah wins on both simple elegance and sheer grandeur of its design. The menorah alone, spray-painted silver with no other adornment, is a striking and beautiful sight–the automobile underneath becomes but a humble pedestal for such interesting rolling modern sculpture.

mini van with rooftop menorah and "Happy Chanukah" banner, Pittsburgh, PA

PVC car menorah, electrical pole not included

If the spectator wants to see the full panoply of menorahmobiles, ground zero is Chabad of Pittsburgh’s Grand Menorah Parade. This year, it was held on Dec. 28, the fifth day of Chanukah. Detail-focused Orbit readers will note many photos included here have five bulbs lit and three dark.

The parade group assembles in the big back parking lot of Rodef Shalom Temple in Oakland and let this blogger tell you: it’s menorahmobiles as far and wide as the eye can see. Any lapse in reporting on this story can be blamed on the simple overwhelming number of subjects to try to catch, photograph, and say hello to in the midst of rapidly-diminishing daylight and the parade group’s imminent takeoff.

sedan with menorah and "Happy Chanukah" sign on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

Street menorahmobile, Squirrel Hill

white car with home made menorah on roof, Pittsburgh, PA

One on the street and one in the driveway. Squirrel Hill.

While fans can bag a virtually unlimited number of menorahmobiles in the setup for the parade, it’s also great to spot them “in the wild”. For the eight days of Chanukah, jaunts down the residential streets of Squirrel Hill will yield cockscombed Corollas and mohawked minivans casually parked on curbsides and driveways throughout.

* * *

One final thought: While this exercise was enlightening and fun, ultimately we found ourselves wishing the vehicle owners put more emphasis on creativity and individuality than simply selecting one of four off-the-shelf models. Menorahs come in infinite fantastic and original designs and have been a common subject for Jewish artists forever. Of course the roof of an automobile imposes some practical limitations to what the car’s owner can do, but I bet the community would come up with some really incredible creations if just given a little bit more of a prompt.

lineup for Grand Menorah Parade, Pittsburgh, PA

Lineup for the Grand Menorah Parade at sundown, Rodef Shalom, Oakland

A Paean to the Disappearing Pittsburgh Protractors

purple protractor with number "500" written on it attached to garbage can, Pittsburgh, PA

The final protractor? #500, river trail, North Side

They’re all over the damn place. Protractors–those same cheap plastic devices we had to pony up for to complete ninth grade geometry–are glued to guard rails, bridge supports, waste bins, mailboxes, lamp posts, and the backs of street signs all over the city.

If you haven’t seen them, you either don’t live around here or you haven’t been looking. There are–or werehundreds of them[1]. In the hands of our pranksters/artists/mysterions (take your pick) each of the protractors has been painted a solid color, sequentially numbered by hand in big block numerals, and grafted to every manner of publicly-accessible metal surface.

green protractor glued to graffiti-covered mailbox, Pittsburgh, PA

#100, North Oakland

Until now, The Orbit has resisted writing about the so-called “Pittsburgh protractors”. They’ve been around for a number of years and have achieved a certain level of obscure fame. The phenomenon is well documented in one dogged blogger’s map and database[2]. Even the local TV news got involved. The protractors don’t need us…or do they?

We started to realize that a lot of the old familiar golden, purple, green, and pink arches we’re used to seeing around town are disappearing. Gone are standout creatures of the Fort Duquesne, Smithfield Street, and Hot Metal bridges. Lamppost bases are scraped clean; big relay mailboxes and waste bin containers have simply been painted-over in not-quite-matching colors, sparing the maintenance workers the trouble of decoupling the protractors underneath. When oddity turns into nostalgic despair, that’s when The Orbit steps in.

protractor glued to mailbox, both painted hunter green, Pittsburgh, PA

#273[3], mailbox, Oakland/Shadyside (painted-over)

protractor glued to public waste bin container, Pittsburgh, PA

(unknown), river trail, North Side (painted-over)

What do the protractors mean?

The Orbit has always been content with a state of bemused wonder, so trying to suss meaning out of someone’s goofy art prank doesn’t concern us that much. As the protractor perpetrator(s) have remained mum this long, it’s unlikely we’ll get any definitive answer any time soon–if ever.

That said, it’s been commonly theorized that the shape of a protractor echoes the gentle arc and twin supports of a standard truss bridge–think the Fort Pitt, Fort Duquesne, or 16th Street bridges. It’s an appealing and believable theory. Pittsburgh is, after all, the “city of bridges,” and the protractors have been applied liberally to many of them.

Fort Pitt Bridge over the Monongahela River, Pittsburgh, PA

Fort Pitt Bridge, possible protractor prompt?

Who put these up?

It sure seems like no one knows–or, at least, no one’s talking/blogging. According on one old axe, “Three people can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” By this logic, we’re dealing with one lone wolf–but who knows? What does seem obvious is that the person or persons behind this are intimately familiar with the walkable/ridable core of central Pittsburgh.

The aforementioned map contains points almost solely within the East End, Central North Side, and a very small representation of South Side (really just the river trail). We see nothing up in or over the hills, in the suburbs, or, frankly, in the black neighborhoods. There are also no reports from downtown, Squirrel Hill, or Greenfield–but some of this may be the bias of who’s reporting the finds, rather than actual placement.

All this certainly points to a bicycle-rider. There are a ton of protractors along the river trails and probably more along the bridge pedestrian walkways (although many of these have been removed). But beyond that….we got nuthin’.

purple protractor glued to metal blocker on bicycle trail, Pittsburgh, PA

#408, river trail, Millvale/North Side

Frankly, we’ve always had some issues with the protractors. It’s such an interesting and dedicated act of…mystery, but the slapped-on, haphazard approach and application often feels like it falls just short. Why not even them up, add an element, make them sing?

But as we muddled over this story, we realized what a minor gripe this really is. This blogger has great respect for any covert operation that exists for this long without anyone spilling the beans. We also love that the targets are all the city’s forgotten infrastructure–no private property has been harmed in the addition of the protractors[4].

And then, of course, there’s the egg hunt. If this whole thing has gotten even just a small number of dedicated weirdos to take to the streets, bridges, and bicycle trails with an eye out for the curve, well, The Orbit says hats off for the protractor perpetrators getting people off their keisters, into the outdoors, and observing their surroundings.

blue protractor glued to metal plate on 40th Street Bridge, Pittsburgh, PA

#303, 40th Street Bridge


[1]  At least 500. But, you know, it ain’t official.
[2]  Just in comparing notes for this story, it was obvious how difficult keeping the map accurate and current would be. Many of the inclusions on the map are no longer there, and likewise many of the (newer?) protractors we located aren’t listed.
[3]  Identification from Eric Lidji’s Pittsburgh Protractor Map, which also includes a photo before the paint-over.
[4]  We wish the War on Google and Facebook is Boring taggers would be this respectful.