Journey of a menorah: Family heirloom from New York City winds up in Tupelo’s Elvis Presley Museum

By Riley Manning/NEMS Daily Journal

TUPELO – Tupelo resident George Copen’s earliest memory of his family’s menorah stretches back to the early 1950s in New York City, a long way from Tupelo’s Elvis Presley Museum.
The lighting of the modest candelabra’s nine candles recalls when the Jewish people reclaimed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the second century B.C.
They found only one day’s worth of lamp oil, but miraculously, the oil sustained the menorah’s flames for eight days. It is customary for Jewish people to light the menorah at the beginning of Hannukah, which lasts eight days, and retell the Hannukah story.
“It was my grandmother’s menorah,” Copen said. “We would go over to her house each year and light her menorah for Hannukah. It was tradition.”
The 1950s were a different time, Copen said, one where youth were eager to inherit the legacy of their fathers. In 1954, the Copens left New York and relocated to Tupelo, where Copen’s father, Ruben, sold supplies to Tupelo’s thriving garment industry, including Reed’s department store downtown. George Copen was 11 years old.
Copen said his family also found a nourishing Jewish congregation made up of about 75 families from a 50-mile radius, who worshipped in the space above Biggs furniture, now a vacant lot on Spring Street across from the courthouse.
“Even though it was small, the congregation did a great job of installing Jewishness into the kids,” he said.
As Copen grew up, he began making the rounds to manufacturers and retailers with his father, learning the trade in preparation to inherit the business. Each summer, he returned to New York City to visit his grandmother and her menorah, until her death in Copen’s late teens.
“A Jewish family may only have two or three different menorahs in their lifetime, so it is a very meaningful symbol,” Copen said. “When my grandmother died, my father brought the menorah back and we used it in our own house. It passed to me when I got married.”
The menorah remained a fixture in Copen’s home for years, while he beat the bushes to make his living with the same ambition as his father.
“Times were good,” he said. “If you know your product, you can make a good living.”
During this time, Copen became friends with his neighbor, Janelle McComb and her son Jim Hill. It was when McComb asked to borrow the menorah that the fixture changed hands again.
“She borrowed it in the spring, and I didn’t think about it again until Hannukah,” Copen said. “I thought ‘surely she gave it back,’ but I could never find it. I thought it might have been stolen, but it was only chrome. Its only value was sentimental.”
Copen kept his eye out for his family heirloom for a few years, replacing the menorah in the meantime. When McComb died, the relic still failed to surface, and would remain undiscovered for decades.
Three years ago, Copen was helping a friend do research to determine if Elvis had any Jewish roots. He spoke with Roy Turner, a local Elvis afficionado.
“I told him about the menorah and he joked it was probably up in Graceland, because of Janelle’s inclination to give things away,” Copen said. “Then he remembered a picture of the menorah and other religious vestments in the Elvis museum, so I went to take a look and sure enough there it was.”
The menorah had been donated to the museum by McComb to illustrate the point that Elvis brought many facets of society together under his music, hence the other religious items in the display.
In addition, McComb’s grandson, Blair Hill, had become an assistant curator of the museum and helped Copen strike a deal: Copen would allow the menorah to stay at the museum, but if anything were to happen to the museum, ownership of the menorah would revert back to Copen.
“I was relieved to locate it, and at first I wanted to have it back,” Copen said. “But more people can appreciate it here than sitting in my china cabinet getting dusty.”
Since its discovery, Copen has visited his grandmother’s menorah each year at Hannukah to light the candles with an intimate group of family or friends, or even by himself sometimes.
“The lighting of the menorah is a very personal thing for me. It doesn’t matter if anyone is there or not,” Copen said.
This year, the Hannukah candles were lit in a ceremony by Rabbi Marshal Klaven, director of Rabbinic Services for the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, based out of Jackson. True to tradition, the story of the menorah was retold.
“Hannukah and the menorah represent much more than a few candles staying lit,” Klaven explained.
According to Klaven, Hannukah commemorates the rededication of the Jewish Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which took place around 130 B,C. At the time, the massive Greek Seleucid Empire had imposed the mythological Greek religion on the Jewish people, desecrating the Holy temple by erecting a statue of the Greek god Zeus.
When Judah Maccabee’s father, a Jew, refused to bow before Zeus, the Jewish people were inspired to revolt, under Judah’s lead, against their oppressors, who were mightier in force, numbers and technology.
When they set about reconsecrating the temple and found only one day’s supply of oil, the miracle happened.
“The idea represented by the menorah is that one flame lights another. The actions of Judah’s father inspired other Jews to stand up for principles greater than themselves,” Klaven said. “Light overcomes darkness only if that light doesn’t stand alone.”
riley.manning@journalinc.com